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Lost In America

An intrepid reporter braves tiger pits, marathoners, and countless umlauts to get to the bottom of the Biggest Box -- Ikea.
 
 
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Like every news department, the paper I work for here in Seattle gets besieged with press releases, promotional packets, and other, sometimes extraordinary gimmicks, all sent with only one goal in mind: to get us writers to give them free publicity in the form of a puff piece.

But every once in a while, one of these corporate press releases comes along with a headline so terrifying, so mind-numbingly awful that, as a public service, it must be written about. You must be warned.

Ikea is doubling in size.

Specifically, my mail announced this week, a local Ikea store, near a major mall (natch), will open a new section, its fourth in seven years, thus doubling its original size: 300,000 square feet of sales area.

Ikea -- for those who don't know, it's a Swedish-themed purveyor of furniture and household accessories -- proudly figures this news will inspire all of us to rush right out and buy twice as many modular whatevers at reasonable prices.

Don't. Don't do it.

It's not just that Ikea represents massive retail overkill, the type of now-fashionable "big box" store that shows up on photos from space looking sort of like extra icecaps. It's not just that entire Third World countries lack firewood because of particular Ikea outlets.

Their stores are arranged with only one, one-way aisle, so that you are prompted -- commanded, really -- to pass through every section of the store, past thousands of TV screens and screaming kids and point-of-purchase displays, to pay for your new particle board bookcase.

Remember that game you had as a kid, where you tilt a board on two planes to try to get a marble or steel ball past a bunch of numbered holes in a maze? Ikea is laid out exactly like that. Only, last fall they ran the first annual Newcastle Marathon up here entirely inside Ikea's Southcenter store, because two laps of the store, following their ubiquitous red one-way arrows on the floor, happens to be exactly 26.2 miles.

The sinister thing about all this is that, just like that childhood game of old, the Ikea stores also have holes. Actually, they don't, literally, any more; animal rights activists objected to the tigers in the old Ikea tiger pits, even though the big cats ate well. Instead, now Ikea stores have little side entryways, and occasional, innocuously misapplied arrows pointing the wrong way. People wander down those aisles, and never come back . Your child, mother, or best friend could be next. The word "Ikea" is itself Swedish, from "ich" ("child") and "eeaaahh?" ("Where's my -- ").

Our office sent out three other people to try to gauge where, physically, Ikea could be expanding its store, since there's a gargantuan and unencroachable parking lot on all sides. It could involve extra dimensions or alternate universes. And our reporters might be in them, because they all failed to return.

The spouse of one got a postcard; judging from the stamp, she thinks it's from Cambodia. The smudged writing seems to say something about a sweatshop, slavery, and credenzas. But she's not sure.

I cannot imagine why we need an even larger Ikea store, any more than cities need larger Costcos, or smaller counties need larger downtown-destroying Walmarts. Ikea, of course, thinks it's all quite wonderful. But even in Ikea's own press release, there are hints of the darker truths involved. Especially where it describes an area in which "...children can now be conveniently picked-up near the Restaurant for family lunch or more shopping." Are we shopping with those children? Or buying them? Or eating them? (For "family lunch")? Is "Restaurant" some cult reference? And WHOSE CHILDREN? Day of the Dead, anyone? Stephen King in the Mall of America?

Ikea is quintessentially global -- it's unlikely a single sale item in its 3,714,091,632,021,226-item store was made entirely in the United States. The eerie visage of hundreds, no, thousands of happy and acquisitive Americans, at any given moment, herded down those one-way mazes, from which everyone -- well, almost everyone -- emerges with identical bargains like lab mice finding their cheese, is hard to shake. Is this "globalization"? (And if it is, why is it that American-based environmental groups all seem to focus on things like wilderness preservation, and none dare mention America's obscene appetite for natural resources to fuel our unending quest for More Stuff?)

All those happy Ikea shoppers never seem to see the people snatched from their midst, or the ghosts living among the dinette sets and sofas. Oh, the humanity.

You've been warned.