When IKEA came to the Washington, D.C. area, I was less than impressed. The quick availability of cheap, crappy northern European furniture did not make up for the underhanded business practices they used to get their building permits, not to mention the fact that they wiped out an aging historical landmark, promised to build back a memorial on its site once construction was done, did so, but then as soon as it was completed, immediately tore that up and sold the land to developers, never to rebuild again.

So I boycotted for the first year or so and refused to go in, no matter how much I needed inexpensive, breakable furniture that had names I could not pronounce bestowed upon it.

I honestly can't remember what great temptation finally led me away from the Iron Rod and in through IKEA's friendly "Hej" doors, but it happened about a year after the store opened. I might even have been on maternity leave with The Dormouse and desperate for Stuff To Entertain Me. What I do know is that I had her in tow and she was pretty small at the time. I went in, dubious about what to expect and quickly overwhelmed by the theme park-like quality they had tried to impose upon the shopping experience.

I was incensed that they had drawn lines on the floor, giving each shopper a suggested route through the store that ensured they could feast their eyes on literally every item in stock. What if I wanted to see kitchen furniture before office furniture??? Or - dare I say it - start my shopping experience on floor one instead of floor two and head straight to the checkout after that? What then, IKEA???? Still, I only walked through the one time and never actually made any purchases.

My first softening-of-the-heart experience was when we were looking for some braces to attach our existing furniture to the wall and keep The Dormouse from pulling bookshelves down on her head when she started using them as leverage to pull up to a stand. I hadn't been able to find any such animal at baby paraphernalia stores and I had no idea where to get them. Then one day thought, "Well, hell... IKEA = furniture store. Maybe they sell them." So I ventured in one day and asked one of the workers there where I could find such a thing. She looked me up and down, then went to a cabinet behind the cash register, reached in, and retrieved a handful of hardware.

"Here you go." and dropped half a dozen small packages on the counter.

"How much are they?" I asked.

"Oh we don't sell them - they come with the furniture you purchase."

"But I haven't purchased any furniture from this store."

"Just take them. It's no big deal."

I rubbed my eyes like a Chuck Jones character and stammered, "Whaaaaa?" Then grabbed the packages and high-tailed it out of the store in case anyone stopped me before I got to the door. But on the way, I started to look around and notice all the great stuff the store provided for shoppers with kids.

First of all, there was a large children's furniture section with samples of items laid out for easy viewing and testing. No one seemed to care that parents brought their children, sat down on a tiny chair not guaranteed to hold their weight, and just let them play with the stuff as much as they wanted. The furniture was set out in mock rooms with all the accessories and there was a slide going into the area. Kids would run from one thing to the next, crawl into and out of the beds, sit at kid sized desks, slide down a kid sized slide... It was like a tiny mosh pit for toddlers.

Other things finally won me over:
  • They had a family restroom with an alcove and soft comfy chair in which to sit in a private area and nurse.
  • The sinks in all the bathrooms had small step stools next to them so children did not have to be lifted up to wash their hands.
  • The changing table in the family restroom was stocked with baby wipes and free diapers in case you ran out.
  • In the cafeteria, they not only had kids' dinners available for 99 cents, but also baby food.
  • Signs in the elevator advertised free cookies and milk each day during a two hour period in the afternoon.
  • They started hosting Music Together and Gymboree demonstration classes for free.
  • Throughout the entire store are little yellow playhouses, each stocked with different playthings from the kids section.
  • In the cafeteria area was another sectioned off play area where kids could play with toys and watch videos on television while parents sat at tables around and observed while they ate.
  • And the be all and end all: a ball pit on the showroom floor that was designed for only kids under three who couldn't go into their supervised play area/fake day care. This was, by far, the hit of the store for parents and kids, alike.

You had me at Hej, IKEA. You had me at Hej.

We started going to IKEA in the morning, just to play in the "blueberry pond" as The Dormouse dubbed the little ball pit which was stocked with only blue balls. (I'm biting my tongue right now to keep from making the obvious Beavis and Butthead reference here. Not because I'm not thinking of it, but only because it isn't germane to the story. I'm really a fourteen year old by at heart.) Then little by little, IKEA won us over. We'd add to that, an inexpensive breakfast from the cafeteria. Then we started coming for dinner with The KingOfHearts for delicious, inexpensive Swedish meatballs. Then I purchased kids' plastic plates and cups. And a blue bear chair. And small tables and chairs. And some kitchen utensils. And... and... and.

Suddenly, I was spending as much time there as I was spending at church each week and completely used it as a fall back when I needed something to do with a baby that involved going out of the house. I learned the layout of the store and no longer had to follow the arrows on the floor simply to get to the exit. I could head straight for the housewares and knew all the shortcuts to getting there. IKEA was my playgroup and unlike others, I was completely happy with that relationship.

About a year of this went by and we lived in harmony, IKEA and I. But slowly, surely, the benefits that drew us in began to diminish. First, the milk and cookies completely disappeared. Sure the sign was still there saying it was available, but you now had to ask for them and the surly cafeteria attendant would sigh loudly and stomp off to find you a cookie and a warm container of milk, after which you didn't really have enough faith in humanity to eat it.

Then, the free diapers were replaced with a sign that said they were still available but if you wanted one, you needed to ask for them (with, of course, no indication of whom or where to ask). Once I got stuck without my own diapers (I actually used theirs quite seldom because I always had my own, but I always appreciated that they were available) and had to ask for them. I consulted three employees who had no idea where to find them before I gave up and went home with my kid in a wet diaper. Eventually, even the sign went the Way Of The Woolly Mammoth and employees claimed not to know that there ever were diapers available.

The kids' meals got progressively less creative and smaller. Also they stopped being served on the colorful kids' plate in the big picture that advertised them (one of the only reasons The Dormouse wanted one). The television in the cafeteria play area, stopped running videos and now only exhibited a large blank screen. Then they moved the play area, made it smaller and took out many of the toys.

The comfy chair in the nursing area disappeared, leaving an empty room where nursing mothers were welcome to... sit on the floor, I guess.

I was mildly miffed by these things, but I kind of understood. I suppose these amenities were abused by some clientèle and I could see how they might have to limit access.

Then: Hit Below the Belt Number One. They raised the price of the Swedish meatball dinner. They started offering three different sizes at three different prices and counting, COUNTING!, the number of meatballs in each. The worker would sparingly ladle half a tablespoon of gravy over the meatballs and we'd always have to ask for more. "Um... could you at least put gravy on all the meatballs?" She'd roll her eyes and put on another half tablespoon, then plop your plate down in front of you with a Great Sigh of Being Inconvenienced.

Still, I tried to defend IKEA. I chalked up the surly and/or non-existent customer service to "that's just the way things are in the Washington area." Whenever a new store opens, employees are friendly and helpful for about two weeks, tops. Then their true colors show, people get bored and dissatisfied with their jobs, and the idea that an employee might actually be there to help a shopper is as distasteful as eating fried crickets.

But the latest, most significant blow, I can no longer blame on local management: THEY HAVE TAKEN OUT THE BLUEBERRY POND PEOPLE!! To make room for more inexpensive, breakable household items with names I cannot pronounce. There is now no place where the little kids can go and play in the ball pit supervised by their parents. I know that The Dormouse was nearing an age and size when she would be too big to go into the little kids' ballpit, but I have another one coming and I had plans for those blue balls! This is what the Blueberry Pond currently looks like:

And you can see Marielle's dissatisfaction:

Their Fake Day Care only allows kids over three in (and apparently, closes without notice according to the latest report). Parents may not enter with them. I know that The Dormouse is technically almost old enough to go in, but whenever I look in through the window they have kids in there from three to around fifteen. In my experience when I let her go in a play area with older kids, she gets totally trampled by the bigger ones. Call me overprotective, but I don't really trust free child care run by minimum wage workers - especially when I can't go in to observe what's going on. I don't know what kind of people they're hiring, if there's been a background check, or whether or not they conform to the minimum state day care standards (I'm guessing not)...

From the window of the Fake Day Care, it appears that their sum total effort to entertain the kids inside is a television with movies playing on a loop. They actually have a ball pit inside, but I seldom see it open when I walk by and usually the kids, young and old, are sitting like small zombies, starting at the TV. So leaving my child with strangers I know nothing about and kids I know nothing about while I wander around the giant showroom for the two to three hours that it takes to fully get through that store? Not really a solution to the woes of shopping in my book. Plus... this next child? Will not even have that option available for quite some time.

It's stupid on their part, really. The only thing that brought me into the store in the first place was the amenities they offered for kids, but in the year or two we went there, I spent a lot (and I mean a lot) of money on things I would probably have bought anyway, but definitely wouldn't have purchased there. Now? I'll be just as happy to buy my inexpensive breakable furniture at Target.

The plus is I won't have to wonder how to pronounce Barnslig Flodh
äst and Korall Haj.

Now to go here and tell "Anna" exactly how I feel about the lack of blue balls. You are welcome to do the same.