There was an ambitious Englishman named Andrew Thornton ...who had lived in London, Paris, New York, Rio, and California; who had travelled the world at age 25; who had hitchhiked across the USA 8 times (once with a golden retriever; who was about to leave a job in Haiti, where he had overseen the production of handcrafts and baskets for export to the USA. Foreseeing the desire for such products in his adopted hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, he decided to import a container of goods before he left.
When he needed help, the ambitious young man called on his Richmond-born, UVa-grad, Miami-residing lawyer-friend and still current business partner, Ivor Massey. This very helpful man brought financial and legal assistance and much-needed support through humor.
1980 - As the order progressed, he realized that the business would need a storefront, and advertising, and - of course - a name. He named it LaDifférence from the Haitian motto Vive La Différence! and set up shop in a 2,000 square foot space on Old Ivy Road in then very traditional Charlottesville, Virginia. LaDifférence, Inc., was born. There were naysayers who said that a store like this would never last in Charlottesville.
1982 - Modern furniture and housewares of the lifestyle variety (think futons, flip chairs, and espresso machines... it was 1982, after all) took over from baskets and handcrafts. The store on Ivy Road doubled in size, growing from 2,000 feet to 4,000 feet.
1984 - Thornton took his first overseas business trip, to the furniture fair in Copenhagen. Always an avid traveller, he discovered his favorite part of 'LaDiffing' early on: the buying trips.
1987- As it outgrew the space on Old Ivy Road, LaDIFF, as its customers were calling it, moved to a 15,000 foot space in the 'brand new' Seminole Square Shopping Center. Two floors around a grand atrium space allowed for more room for a full-fledged kitchen department, bed & bath section, lots of gifts, lighting, closet systems, and much, MUCH more furniture.
1990 - When space became available on the second floor, LaDiff grew into it, becoming a 20,000 showroom of modern and contemporary design in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a mecca for returning U.Va. students each and every August.
1991- In need of a partner to share the FUN and delight of running a retail business, Thornton was joined by Sarah Paxton - another Richmond-born, UVa grad, with a degree in Ancient Greek. Hmmm... That's just the sort of degree that would prepare her perfectly for the home furnishings business.
1992 - With a customer base building in the state capital of Richmond, LaDiff looked east for a second location. After a test sale event in the still desolate, unpopulated area of Tobacco Row, LaDiff settled into a tiny storefront at the corner of Patterson & Glenburnie. For several months, the store was staffed by Charlottesville employees who commuted 5 days a week. While some dubious citizens were perplexed by the presence of a modern store in their belovedly traditional city, LaDiff's loyal Richmond customer base was pleased to have a small taste of LaDiff in Richmond. They told their friends... and they begged for more - space and furniture, that is!
1993 - Responding to their customers' pleas, and taking a gamble, LaDiff moved into space at 23rd and East Cary Street in Tobacco Row. In 10,000 feet of the the first and only semi-renovated floor of the six-story former Philip Morris production warehouse, LaDiff spread out.
1994 - When the lease in Charlottesville came up for renewal. Thornton & Paxton saw it as an opportunity for reinvention. They made the difficult decision to close the Charlottesville store and operate solely in Richmond. They thanked their Charlottesville customers for 14 years of loyalty, had a heck of a store closing sale, and invited everyone to visit them in Tobacco Row. Next, they personally pulled up stakes and moved to Richmond, too, right up the hill from the store in Church Hill - walking distance from one of their new favorite restaurants, Millie's.
1995 - LaDiff took over the 2nd floor of the Phillip Morris building, renovating it themselves. Located a few blocks from the I95 and I64 interchange, the store began to enjoy visits from customers all over the state. In the meantime, after 4 years of working together, Thornton & Paxton solidified their partnership by getting married - on their front porch, in Church Hill, on a very, very cold day in December.
1998 - Tobacco Row was for sale, and Forest City made the purchase. LaDiff had 9 months to find a new home. Knowing they wanted to stay downtown, Thornton spent many days walking around Tobacco Row, Shockoe Bottom, and Shockoe Slip looking for a potential new home for the growing store. At the corner of 14th and Dock Street, across from the 14th Street Bridge, he discovered a For Sale sign on the old and delapidated Watkins Cottrell building. After touring the building with Massey & Paxton, and offering up his vision to replace the pigeon guana and broken floorboards with colorful furniture from around the world, the trio was hooked. The Watkins Cottrell building went from purchase to occupancy in 6 months - a record. At a special press event, dignitaries, media, and politicians - including then mayor/now the Honorable Governor Tim Kaine - welcomed the newly renovated Watkins Cottrell building with the new and improved LaDifférence as the largest retailer to exist downtown since the migration and closure of two major department stores a few years earlier. In the meantime, LaDiff's old space at Tobacco Row became the home of the Old Original Bookbinders restaurant and new apartments overlooking the canal.
1999 - A HUGE Grand Opening Gala brought friends from around the world to see the shiny new store in the old historic building. Through silent auction and raffle items donated by generous LaDiff vendors, guests helped LaDiff raise over $20,000 for two groups: locally, the East District Family Resource Center and globally (but based locally) the Christian Children's Fund. That same year, the city welcomed an equally new renovation project: the historic Canal Walk, with its meandering design resurrected just outside LaDiff's doors. The Turning Basin across the street greeted visitors for canal rides down the George Washington-surveyed Kanawha Canal while restaurants, clubs, and condos began to populate the banks. Almost one year in their new home, Andy and Sarah, on behalf of LaDiff, were honored to earn the Small Businessperson of the Year award, presented by the Richmond Chamber of Commerce (now the Impact Awards).
2000 - After being honored by the Retail Merchants Association as the Distinguished Retailers of the Year, LaDiff celebrated 20 years in business with a big street party with one of Richmond's newest non-profits, ART 180. A Silent Auction of items donated by LaDiff suppliers and a Live Auction of chairs handpainted by kids from ART 180 helped raise money for this terrific organization. At the end of the year, as the country waited impatiently to see who would be our next president (following the hanging chad debacle), Thornton & Paxton welcomed the newest member of the LaDiff family - daughter Lucy.
2003 - While Hurricane Isabel set her sites on Richmond, two outdoor malls were opening at opposite sides of the city in the same month. September brought power outages, hundreds of felled trees, high winds, along with new competition as national retailers C&B, PB, RH, and others discovered Richmond. LaDiff survived the onslaught of these national chains, even hearing from one customer "I just love LaDiff! (That other nameless store) is just brown, brown, brown, while you are color and FUN."
2004 - As if Isabel weren't trouble enough, Tropical Storm Gaston (since reclassified as a hurricane due to wind strength) whipped through Richmond with 10-14 inches of rain falling in 4 hours. Shockoe Bottom couldn't handle the influx of water. While the canal and river stayed in their banks, thanks to the flood wall, the city streets filled with rain water so high that many neighboring businesses and residents lost their livelihoods for a year (or forever). Although the water lapped at our loading dock, and although CNN showed images of a CONDEMNED sign on our building (there for 3 hours until we were deemed 'safe'), LaDiff was truly fortunate to incur very little loss.
2005 - Having never left behind its gift & accessory roots, LaDiff was proud to be named the best regional furniture store in the East/Atlantic Region by the Accessories Resource Team (ART) and Dallas Merchandise Mart in January. It was a great start to a yearlong anniversary celebration. Customers, vendors, employees - current & past, and friends from around the world joined LaDiff to celebrate our 25th birthday anniversary. BeDIFF Magazine celebrated our accomplishments and told our story. While 700 guests downed oyster shooters and tipped custom martinis, LaDiff raised over $40,000 for ART 180, the East District Family Resource Center, and Katrina Relief.
2006 - LaDiff opened 'LaDiff KID' on the 3rd floor, realizing that our youngest visitors want hip, modern spaces too!
2008 - The 'new & improved' www.LADIFF.com went LIVE in March. This year marks the 10th anniversary of our presence in the Watkins Cottrell building.
2009 - La Difference welcomed 2009, and with it, the opening of our extention Vive. During our many travels, we often find items that we love- they exude warmth, character, and often have a unique one-of-a-kind feel. We'd love to bring these to our customers, but they just don't fit into our modern show room. For these items, we created Vive! LaDiff's alter ego: old world charm with the LaDiff attitude. Vive's opening was a huge success, and continues to bring a different kind of worldly flare to our growing showroom. LaDIFF was also honored to receive Richmond Magazine's award for Best Modern Showroom, determined by the voters of Richmond.
2010 - 2010 marked LaDIFF's 30th Anniversary! With the year kicking off with the tragic destruction of Haiti, LaDIFF was humbled and reflective of our roots. Andy spent two years living in Haiti and created an export business handling handicrafts, artwork, rugs, and the like.
2011 - LaDIFF kicked off 2011 with an expansion to a second location. Located a 1/4 mile from the original center of 'downtown Short Pump', our 7,000-square-foot store in West Broad Village offers shoppers in Central Virginia added convenience and access to the benefits of modern design. You'll find us in good company, with Whole Foods to the west, Trader Joe's to the east, and a variety of great Short Pump retailers & restaurants in between. In the late fall, we became a founding participant in the Shockoe Design District. This group of merchants, restaurants, designers, architects, and community folk is all about celebrating the creativity and innovation that abounds in the city of Richmond.
2012 - The creation of the Shockoe Design District brought growing enthusiasm to make the Shockoe area a center for innovation, design, and creativity. With this growth in mind, we made the conscious decision to close our LaDIFF location at West Broad Village to focus on our downtown flagship store. We found that, while we opened that location for convenience for shoppers in the West End and Charlottesville, our customers didn't mind driving a few extra miles downtown for the full LaDIFF experience and selection available in our 45,000 square foot space.
2014 - Renovations in our downtown showroom included a beautiful revamp of our lighting department.