Though it's still early on a Saturday morning, there are only three remaining parking spots among the hundreds in the lot at Ikea in this freeway-hugging "edge city" that spills over from Oakland. Trekking across acres of asphalt, I begin to comprehend the awesome scale of the store itself, a gargantuan box painted in a garish blue that's obviously intended to impart a warm fuzziness.
"Something for Everyone" promises the monumental sign, like a cheerful message from Big Brother himself. From Interstate 80 Ikea looks big; up close, it's so intimidatingly huge that even the extra-special blue can't compensate for the inhuman banality. And that's when I first realize what is happening to us: My girlfriend and I aren't just shopping for a couple of tall wooden bookcases for our living room. No, we are subjecting ourselves to the socialist shopping experience, exported directly from Sweden, a subversive paradigm offering a radical alternative to the social rifts that polarize arch-capitalist America.
In Ikea's futuristic Marxist Utopia, there will be only one huge store to accommodate the needs of an entire metropolitan area with millions of people. No choice or differentiation for the rich, the poor or the ever-rising bourgeoisie. No vagaries of styles and fashion to divide us by social class, demographic or "psychographic." Everyone will come to the same store and fill their homes with the same stuff. Something for EVERYONE!
At first I'm captivated by the liberal idealism of the place. The hordes thronging toward the massive structure constitute an extraordinarily representative cross section of humanity. Every race, ethnicity and socioeconomic niche is here, clamoring for the basic human right to home furnishings that are inexpensive yet attractive. Our consumerism is uniting us, not dividing us! It's a millennialist vision of universal harmony and peace!
My gush of egalitarian enthusiasm diminishes quickly once we make our way into the store. It's easier to love the masses when they aren't crowding against you from every direction as you try to move forward through the aisles. As we find our way across the vast space, walking, it seems, for miles, the product offerings appear numbingly homogeneous. To be sure, it's nearly impossible not to like the Ikea style, a streamlined, utilitarian look that appeals to the least common denominator of personal taste. There's nothing in an Ikea design that you can reasonably complain about, which makes it a no-brainer for couples with slightly mismatched sensibilities who would otherwise argue for weeks over what living room set or dining table to purchase.
Ikea is the ultimate safe choice. Everyone buys his or her furniture here, so no one will ever criticize your taste. The Ikea stuff is all very nice; the problem is, it's all very much the same. It banishes the conceit of expressive individuality. After an hour of staring at the stuff, I yearn for furniture with an unusual stylistic approach, an ornamental quirk or unconventional look. I was hungry for a little bit of ... American capitalism!
In the good old market economy, we'd be in a quiet, spacious store with eager salespeople to attend to us in the best sycophantic style. At Ikea we're elbowing the hoi polloi throughout the huge showroom. There appear to be no salespeople; that demeaningly servile position -- a relic from the era of class exploitation -- has been eliminated.
Since socialism is an international movement, Ikea has done away with locally tailored marketing. The product lines have gobbledygook-sounding Swedish names that mean nothing to an American: Stromstad, Bakamo, Laholm, Paong, Enneryda, Jussi, Renfors, Hakko, Hovik and Bankeryd. The cafe sells Swedish meatballs, not hamburgers. Maybe the marketing concept is to make you feel like a Swede. In that case, I want state-funded free healthcare when I leave the place.
When we decide on the bookcases we want (only $90 each) there is no one to take our order. There isn't supposed to be. Instead, we must weave and push our way through the other half of the Bay Area's population, through the remaining minimarathon stretch of showroom aisles and into the warehouse itself. There are no stockroom workers, either. In the socialist Utopia, all citizens -- however lame or feeble -- lug their own. When we find the box containing the desired bookcases, we struggle to manipulate the heavy 80-inch-long package onto a dolly. I bruise my shins and swear out loud.
My girlfriend's toes are nearly crushed as the unwieldy box falls off the undersize wheeler. I try to take solace by thinking of the nobility of labor in the Marxist conception, but somehow it doesn't appease my resentment.
When we wheel the bookcases out of the warehouse, we see the checkout lines. No sight could be more daunting. The lines for bread in Moscow in the '70s must have been shorter and moved faster. There's nothing to do but stand and stare at the other bobos lined up behind us, who seem bewildered by having to idle on line anywhere other than Whole Foods. For Parmigiano-Reggiano and organic black mission figs at the height of the season, they'd wait five minutes. But an hour in line for bookcases? I try (unjustly) to blame my girlfriend for ruining our entire Saturday. I vow to be a dutiful capitalist in the future and pay extra for service, convenience and diverse stylistic choices and for other people to do the manual labor.
The irony is that we can't figure out how to fit the boxes into my Honda Civic, so we have to pay an extra $100 for delivery, which wipes out much of the money we were supposedly saving by going to Ikea.
The final insult is that the bookcases are sold unassembled. When they arrive on Wednesday, my girlfriend has to call over two other friends to help her put them together. It takes a long time and requires her to offer them two bottles of wine. Fortunately, I'm out for the evening -- in orchestra seats at the opera, reestablishing my credentials with the unapologetic capitalist elite.
Later, though, I test my theory about the socialist philosophy of Ikea. I check out the company's Web site and discover a suitably Marxist rhetoric of the masses and classes: "Most of the time, beautifully designed home furnishings are created for a small part of the population -- the few who can afford them," it says. "From the beginning, Ikea has taken a different path. We have decided to side with the many." Furniture buyers of the world, unite!
I keep wondering how Ikea is able to sell things so cheaply, even after the savings from doing away with salespeople and warehouse workers and furniture assemblers. So I tap into an international news database and search on "Ikea and sweatshops." It turns out that labor activists have charged Ikea with selling rugs made by child slaves in India and Pakistan. Furthermore, London's Daily Telegraph has reported that French labor inspectors investigated the company for working its people too many hours per week.
Aha! Ikea was acting just like an evil U.S. capitalist multinational. Call George Orwell! The animals on the farm are starting to look a bit like the humans they've overthrown. At last, I feel a measure of comfort that my animus toward Ikea might even be politically correct. But I have to confess: It's so nice having the bookcases that I'm thinking of going back to buy two more.