Ryal Thomas: more than just a happy stripper

Have a chipped coffee table? Ryal Thomas can help. Have a chip on your shoulder? Ryal Thomas is still your man.

Thomas is a renaissance man of sorts, with a Belmont-based furniture restoration business and a public access show, Voices, that tackles issues including child support, racism, and single parenting. He's on a mission, he says, to make lives better.

The front rooms of Thomas's thriving Hinton Avenue shop, Ready Restoration, are filled with gleaming, newly lacquered tables, chairs, and benches; the actual restoration is done in the back of the same building.

Sitting in an elegant and newly refinished high-back chair, Thomas points to a framed essay he penned called "Innocence of Night," an ode to the importance of reflecting on your life after the sun has gone down. He says he sold several copies of the piece on the Downtown Mall. His intensity is palpable.

"This is a one-time journey," he says of life, his eyes shining. "There's no second chance on this level."

Which is not to say that Thomas has never made mistakes. In fact, he says, "the single greatest sin is to believe you never sin at all."

Thomas began his work in the furniture restoration business at age 12. "It was just money," he says. "I was doing it to help my mom," a single parent who raised him and who he now calls "inspirational."

That fortuitous apprenticeship at The Happy Stripper became more than just a source of income, however; Stripper owners Ruthann and James Payne treated Thomas "as well as their own child," he recalls. He continued to work for them through his teenage years. After a debilitating high school track injury sidelined college scholarship offers, the Paynes pushed Thomas to pursue his dreams of higher education. But after a serious car accident during his third year at Ferrum College outside Roanoke, Thomas returned to Charlottesville to help raise a baby daughter. A return to restoring furniture seemed a natural choice.

Though his first effort at running his own business fizzled (he says he was too young), seven years later he proved the second time's the charm.

Since he opened Ready Restoration in 1996, he says he has quadrupled the size of the business. He attributes that growth to his positive attitude as well as his ability to relate to people of all colors, creeds, and socioeconomic levels.

"If you treat people with respect, they will give you respect in return," he says. "People are just people." Although he has a Christian background, he says it's his life experiences that have shaped his beliefs more than any one faith.

"Everything we hear and see contributes to where we go in life," he says. "Every experience smell, sound, relationship that's who you become."


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