Need to get away from it all? Need a new easy chair? Says we, these goals are entirely compatible. We all know there’s lots of great shopping here in Charlottesville, but sometimes it’s fun to turn home-related quests into mini-adventures. Hop in the minivan, crank up the tunes and venture out to some of the more distant reaches of the Commonwealth to outfit your homestead. Here are four of our favorite destinations.—Erika Howsare
Green Front Furniture
Where it is: Downtown Farmville
Drive time: 1 hour, 20 minutes
How to get in touch: 392-5943 or greenfront.com
Why you should go: This is a legendary destination for furniture—plus wandering the 15 Green Front stores amounts to a tour of historic small-town Virginia.
The first thing to know about Farmville is that it’s located at the end of a surpassingly beautiful drive, down routes 20 and 15 into Prince Edward County. When you get there, look for the towering brick warehouses at one end of Main Street. These are a fine place to begin, but they’re only part of the Green Front empire, which has pockets all around the center of this friendly little town.
Chairs fit for kings—
kings who also appreciate
getting a deal on a rug—
fill warehouses in Farmville.
Fifteen showrooms (listed in a handy brochure and numbered near their front doors for easy spotting) and 650,000 square feet of inventory make for a potentially overwhelming day. Luckily, you can skip entire buildings if you know what you’ve come for—a particular piece (bed, armoire, etc.) or brand name. Building 7, for example, is the rug clearance center, where the imported wares are rolled, stacked and hung to make for a world-market atmosphere. If it’s a new lamp you need, buildings 5 and 15 on Main Street burst with accessories.
Green Front bills itself as a place to save 40-50 percent off retail prices, and most of the merchandise is at least mid-level in quality. A couple of random snapshots from our meandering journey through the showrooms: a grand mahogany dresser, $2,299; a slightly soiled easy chair, as-is for $199; a black, modern-style bed for $499.
We’d be remiss not to mention, by the way, how charming the showrooms are, housed as they are largely in former tobacco warehouses with exposed joists and painted brick walls. Plank floors creak appealingly as you wander, and staircases lead to ever-higher levels under cavernous ceilings. It’s somehow very comfortable—and not just because you’re surrounded by more easy chairs than you’ve ever seen before in one place.
Where it is: 104 E. Second St., Richmond
Drive time: 1 hour, 15 minutes
How to get in touch: (804) 232-4175 or caravatis.com
Why you should go: It’s like mainlining pure essence of old houses.
Reno enthusiasts, expect your pulse to quicken.
Been to Charlottesville’s Habitat Store? Picture it on steroids, and you have a pretty good idea of what Caravati’s is like. A city’s worth of salvaged building materials is absolutely packed into a two-floor warehouse in a no-nonsense industrial Richmond neighborhood. This is where old porch columns, light fixtures, fence stakes and mantlepieces go, but not to die. To the contrary, these artifacts seem to hum with ideas about the new lives they could live…if you brought them home.
If you need one of something, but want a dozen options to choose from, Caravati’s is your place.
“It’s somewhat categorized,” said the Carhartt’s-clad employee who greeted us on our visit. Wandering the aisles, we found he was right: The first room downstairs (the only heated one) contains most of the odd one-off items (typewriters, a fire hydrant, a diner-table jukebox for $150) while the larger, chillier regions of the warehouse are all about volume, with things like windows and doors stacked up in astounding quantities. Ever been alone in a room with 300 sinks?
This is a place to go if you need something specific—replacements for the lead weights in your double-hung windows—or if you want to browse. There’s a certain inspiration to be found where a $6,000 Chinese bed sits comfortably next to old steam radiators with chipping paint, and if you’re restoring an old place, you’ll be glad to see things like carved wooden brackets being preserved and passed on. Prices—unmarked in many cases—will suit many different budgets, as long as you’re not aiming for the absolutely dirt-cheap: You can drop $4,500 on a very ornate and well-preserved fireplace surround, or you can adopt a much plainer one for $350.
One more thing: There’s no way you can paw through it all in one visit. If you’re going on a serious house-parts run, leave yourself plenty of time for hunting and thinking.
Torpedo Factory Art Center
Where it is: On the Potomac River in Old Town Alexandria
Drive time: 2 hours, 20 minutes
How to get in touch: (703) 838-4565 or torpedofactory.org
Why you should go: With over 160 artists under one roof, this is a one-stop shop for a fairly wide variety of art pieces to jazz up your pad.
It seems that for many people, “the artist” is about as exotic a species as “the dwarf lemur of Madagascar.” Therefore the chance to view a real one at work holds some fascination, and makes the prospect of living with an artwork in the house that much more meaningful. A former, um, torpedo factory, this World War I-vintage building has had its industrial atmosphere largely stripped away in the 34 years since local artists reopened it as an art center. Now, it’s a cheerful warren of studios and galleries where you can look in on a fiber artist weaving at her loom, or an abstract painter dancing around a canvas, then—if you like what you see—bring home the results to call your own.
At the Torpedo Factory, you peek in, scope the artworks, and keep an eye out for their makers.
The art here ranges from the safe (think oil paintings of flowers) to the surprising (ceramic egg shapes that contain tiny figures when you peer inside). There are functional items like teapots and purely decorative ones like tapestries. Ann Citron’s whimsical figures sculpted from beads and fibers would be welcome in a kid’s room while Susan Makara’s hyperrealist dog portraits (on gold leaf backgrounds, as though pups were medieval saints) would make a sophisticated addition to a modern dining room.
While you can certainly take a wandering, explorative approach—there are 82 studios on three floors—you’ll likely want to avoid oversaturation by bypassing some studios entirely. Luckily, the setup here makes that easy: Each studio has big windows open to the hallway for quick sizing-up. Even when an artist isn’t “home” and a studio is locked, you can get a good idea of what they have to offer by peering in, then—if you’re interested—asking a neighboring artist to let you in.
The luckiest Torpedo artists have studios looking over the Potomac waterfront. Anyone visiting can enjoy the view, too; after you settle on a masterpiece to buy, munch on a picnic by the riverside, then wander uphill through Old Town Alexandria, a shopping mecca in its own right.
The Factory Antique Mall
Where it is: Off I-81 in Verona
Drive time: 45 minutes
How to get in touch: (540) 248-1110 or factoryantiquemall.com
Why you should go: If you like the atmosphere of treasure-hunting in an antique mall, you might as well go straight to the biggest one in the area: This one contains 60,000 square feet of nostalgia.
Once upon a time, factory workers produced men’s clothing in this sprawling building. These days, if you find an ascot in the house it’ll be in the vintage clothing section. More likely you’ll be looking through acres of other antiques: quilts, silverware, tools, books and zillions of other items.
Browsers, packrats, collectors, unite! Temptations abound on The Factory’s floor.
Seventy dealers have their wares arranged in hundreds of booths; the mall is so big that its aisles are marked with street signs, all the way up to “17th Street” and, finally, “Last Street.” You very well might find a lovely, special old piece of furniture—a sideboard or table —to class up your dining room or bedroom. But what really stands out here is the sheer quantity of smaller curiosities. There are Victorian-era patchwork pillows; a carved wooden Ingrahm clock; lithographs of Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S. Grant. Unless your aesthetic is one of modernist purity, you’ll probably find some odd thing that, inside a frame or on top of a shelf, would give your home a little interest and depth.
The atmosphere here seems just right for the Factory’s homey Shenandoah Valley location: a small café inside the mall serves homemade desserts and soups, and the PA system plays oldies while you browse. Bring your sense of poetry, so that when you spot a cross-stitch sampler dated 1888, you’ll be ready to adopt it.