When IKEA decided to open its first store in the United States just outside Philadelphia, Richard Milgrom was one of those who flocked to see what all the fuss was about.
It was 1985, and Milgrom, a professor of urban planning at the University of Manitoba, was completing his master's degree in architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. The IKEA opening, Milgrom recalls, generated quite a bit of excitement.
"It was an interesting event, rather sexy," Milgrom said. "And not particularly ubiquitous. At the time, IKEA was still seen in North America as a Canadian phenomenon. The arrival of IKEA in the U.S. was a pretty big deal, and I certainly wanted to be there."
The fact is IKEA has been around for a long, long time, and has already touched most of us. The first store in Canada -- in Halifax of all places -- opened nearly 40 years ago. In the years since, we in Winnipeg have become surrounded by IKEAs, which should have made the opening of a new store a less seismic event than it was back in the 1980s.
Milgrom had no interest in stoking old memories by dashing out to see the opening of Winnipeg's new IKEA. "I think now, people are using this as proof that we've achieved something that we really haven't," Milgrom said. "I just don't think it's as unique and interesting as perhaps it once was."
OK, so Milgrom was present at a truly historic event in the IKEA timeline. However, like him, I count myself among those who are unmoved by the arrival of IKEA. I also acknowledge it is undoubtedly the minority opinion.
From the moment we learned that more than 1,000 people lined up Wednesday night in harsh, sub-zero weather to be among the first to enter the new store, it was clear a hysteria had gripped the city. IKEA claimed it was surprised that people were prepared to line up overnight, but still made allowances to have those first, brave souls spend the night inside the lobby of the new store, just to ensure Wednesday's opening ceremonies were not marred with hypothermia deaths. Is there any greater proof of hysteria than an otherwise sensible person volunteering to spend the night in a killer cold snap just to shop for rugs and picture frames?
The hysteria has certainly extended to the media covering the IKEA story.
Most journalists in this town understand that IKEA's arrival is not a social revolution of any sort. This is a story about a big retailer looking to make a splash. And that in addition to spending a lot of money on advertising, IKEA will be trying to milk as much free publicity from local media as possible. We know that, but it doesn't necessarily stop us from drinking the Kool-Aid.
Is there anyone connected to this story who hasn't been interviewed? We've been to Sweden to see the folks who wrote the source code on the IKEA phenomenon. We've talked to clerks, corporate executives and spin doctors. We interviewed the first people in line to enter the new store, and the 10th and the 500th person. We'll talk to people who love the new store and those who think it is a scourge on our city.
By the time it's all over, the local media will have been so immersed in the story, it will be as if we've been braised in a blue-and-gold gravy. Evidence of that already exists. In one lamentable episode connected to the IKEA story, journalists, including some from the Free Press, were invited to shop on Monday, two days before the official opening. If there was ever a moment for a journalist to say "thanks but no thanks," it was this one.
But here's the rub: You simply cannot escape the fact this is a big local story. This is a city that wallows in self-pity and is obsessed with comparing itself to surrounding cities. The fact that we didn't have an IKEA but Hamilton did has always been a source of frustration. The arrival of IKEA has been treated by citizen and politician alike as evidence that somehow we've "arrived." Where, it's not exactly clear. But we've arrived there nonetheless.
Thus, the media are trapped between the shameless consumerism of the story and the raging fascination many in this city still have with the Swedish giant's arrival. I'm not willing to admit that the opening of a department store could ever define us as a community. But I'm also unable to dispute the fact that many, many people in this city feel better about living in Winnipeg than they did the day before.
Better is a qualified term, of course. It's hard to argue we're better off having spent $22 million in taxpayer money to improve traffic arteries around the new store. We're putting IKEA into an area of the city already considered to have the worst traffic. The continued development of brownfields in the suburbs is also making the challenge of revitalizing older, core areas that much more difficult. Along with the appeal of this story, all these facts are indisputable.
A community is properly defined by its culture, amenities and the quality of life it offers its citizens. Does IKEA improve the city in any of those categories? No, and yet, there is a feeling this represents progress.
Like many in this city, I hate the fact that we've made such a big deal about IKEA. And I'm also quietly pleased that we finally have our very own blue-and-gold big box.
Guilty pleasure, thy name is IKEA.
Voices on Twitter: first the Jets, now IKEA!!!!
Emily Glover: We made it in and out of IKEA on opening day in about 30 minutes. We even bought things.
Wesley Chan: My mother just texted me and said we're going to IKEA for dinner. The Winnipeg location JUST opened today. Yeah, we're excited.
Graham Haigh: First the NHL now IKEA. Winnipeg is coming of age. Fix the long winters and large mosquitoes + property prices will rival Vcr!
Emma Lockhart: My mom just sent me an email with the subject "IKEA!!!!" Now we only have to go to Winnipeg for all our disassembled furniture needs!
Mike Wilson: Winnipeg is going crazy over the new IKEA! Why? It's just a furniture store! I can understand going crazy for the Jets, but IKEA? C'mon man!
Lindsay H. McMillan: Where is the backlash against the IKEA over-saturation backlash?