Everyone has a few special places – places you keep going back to, like ski resorts, amusement parks, and summer cottages — that get tucked into a sentimental memory pocket, thus assuring eternal nostalgic association with family trips. My personal soft spot flares up when I think of Orlando, Fla.; Bailey Island, Maine; and Elizabeth, N.J. Now, I realize that Elizabeth, N.J., is a little un-kosher as far as favorite places go. And I must admit that I have no clue what the city looks like beyond the view from the New Jersey Turnpike. But in that view, across from those bizarrely tall, industrial looking lights, lies a majestic blue and yellow fortress that — to a young girl in the back of a station wagon, observing a strip of highway in a town that shares her name — glows forever heroic. This beloved blue and yellow beacon will stay fixed in my memory as my first IKEA.
Now, let’s just make it clear that IKEA is so much more than a home furnishings store. It’s a Swedish stroke of genius. All of the furnishings are arranged into beautifully designed room set-ups, so you can’t resist buying those curtains to match the duvet cover that you couldn’t resist buying when you got your bed frame.
Also, there’s this marketplace downstairs which is a veritable wonderland of crap that, in the throes of your Ikea experience, you somehow can’t do without. You inevitably find yourself saying, “This is only five dollars! Who cares if I need it or not?”
And there’s a whole kids’ section where, during those childhood years in Elizabeth, N.J., my sister and I would spend great lengths of time deciding which stuffed animals to bring home as rewards for trudging through the rest of the store with our parents. Incidentally, there’s a ball-pen for those kids whose parents don’t want to schlep them along.
A cool Swedish name classifies each item, like “Fniss” (a trashcan), “Batalj” (a can opener), or “Lingo Bloma” (box with lid). Those Swedes clearly get a kick out of watching us try to pronounce words with far too many consonants adjacent to one another. And then there are the mundane names, like “Billy” (a shelf unit) or “Robin” (a dresser) or “Lack” (an end table). I wonder if these are the most popular items simply because we can pronounce their names. Regardless of whether or not they’re pronounceable, the names give you a personal attachment to things, like a pet or something. It’s not just your shelf — it’s Billy.
And to top it all off, there’s even a restaurant with some kick-ass Swedish meatballs.
IKEA is a concept, my friends. And if you read the section of the IKEA Web site entitled “Our Vision,” you will find that it is a concept not unlike, nor inferior to, Democracy (with a capital D). The site reads, “Most of the time, beautifully designed home furnishings are created for a small part of the population — the few who can afford them. From the beginning, IKEA has taken a different path. We have decided to side with the many.” Is this tugging at your liberal American heartstrings yet? The site continues:
“That means responding to the home furnishing needs of people throughout the world. People with many different needs, tastes, dreams, aspirations… and wallets. People who want to improve their homes and create better everyday lives… It requires a different approach. Finding simple solutions, scrimping and saving in every direction. Except on ideas. But we can’t do it alone. Our business idea is based on a partnership with the customer.” Oh, IKEA, you say all the right things. Vote for IKEA. I mean, John Kerry.
So now that you’re all very clear on what a phenomenon IKEA is, you can imagine my family’s excitement when we found out our very own New Haven was getting its very own IKEA (Yes, I’m a townie). My mom was driving past the construction site just to take a peek long before the parking lot existed. And when the yellow stripe finally got painted on? What a wonderful sight that was.
My parents were hilarious on our inaugural trip to the New Haven IKEA. The parking lot was full, but before parking across the street we had to drive through it so we could see the license plates on cars and know how far consumers had traveled to our little town. (A lot of Massachusetts plates. Eat our plywood sawdust, Harvard). In the store, my dad would say things like, “Oh, we’ve been buying the ‘Stripa’ shelf for years,” as we passed small displays of thin wooden shelves. Every five minutes one of them would guffaw: “You don’t have to buy it now! You can stop by on your way home from work!” or “Why not buy it? You can return it on your way home from work!” And despite the full lot, we didn’t even have to wait in line.
You’ve always loved Swedish meatballs, Swedish women, and Swedish fish, but you’ll see that those Scandinavians have really outdone themselves this time. If you haven’t been to IKEA yet, take your ass across that beautiful new bridge of hope that connects downtown New Haven to Long Wharf and be among the many with whom IKEA has sided.
Elisabeth Kinsley loves to order the Red Headed Slut.