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Columnist gets sneak peek at Tampa's Ikea before Wednesday's grand opening

I'm driving across a dusty stretch of urban industrial dreariness when suddenly it looms before me: the massive blue-and-yellow box of a building, the new Swedish retail mecca for affordable furniture and much, much more.

Or so I am told, when the diehards speak reverently of Ikea.

Tucked between Ybor City and the ugly gray overpasses of the Crosstown Expressway, Ikea is here at last. I've come for a sneak peek before the official grand opening here on Wednesday to figure what the fuss is about, why cults of Ikea-ites will travel miles and even camp overnight, why Ikea's creator is one of the richest people on the planet.

While I have earned my chops as a steely-eyed bargain seeker and well-heeled shopper, truth is I have not seen the inside of an Ikea. For all the big-time stores we've gained — Nordy's, Saks, Neiman Marcus (or Needless Markup, as the wags like to say), Ikea only just arrived.

And to great fanfare. To some, this is akin to a city getting a Super Bowl.

I am greeted by yellow-shirted employees (sorry, "co-workers") and signs hailing me a hearty "valkommen," or welcome.

The inside is clean, funky and bright, Swedish down to the meatballs in the cafeteria. Kid friendly? There is a supervised /a> while you shop.

As we tour endless aisles of sleek sofas, chairs and easy-to-assemble shelves, our guide mentions that if I have to leave early, someone can walk me out so I don't get lost.

Lost? Me? Frequenter of malls in a dozen cities, wanderer of winding foreign flea markets, veteran haggler of New York street vendors, habitue of garage sales, a pittance paid for a Lenox vase as proof? Me, able to find deals even in predawn darkness the day after Thanksgiving?

Thanks, I say, I'm good.

Finally I did have to leave, and wandering on my own, saw lots more than furniture: kid stuff (a sweet stuffed mouse, or mus, which my nephew would love), lamp shades, linens, organizers, art, rugs, garden pots, baskets. (Yes, I am aware of a certain segment of our society that is utterly baffled about the need for baskets in a household. And, yes, I am sad for them.)

A good half-dozen employees — sorry, "co-workers" — offer directions when I get, all right, hopelessly lost.

It's a really big store, okay?

So maybe when it comes to the arrival of Ikea in our midst, we fit into categories: The already-devoted and soon-to-be-hopelessly-won-over; the only mildly interested but glad anyway for the jobs and the buzz and the fact that a store is opening and not closing; and, finally, the avowed could-not-care-less-and-what-is-wrong-with-you-people crowd.

Sort of how we react to getting a new professional sports team around here.

But trust me — come Wednesday, all sorts of folks, including respected professionals with great and somber responsibilities, will be holding up Ikea items and pronouncing them "cute."

Two days before the big opening, the faithful are expected to begin setting up by the sprawling, fresh-topped parking lot, to camp out and wait for bargains and sweet Swedish fish, for a chance, given our current financial, pandemic and other assorted panics, to shop.

To escape.

That I get. Driving away, I think: Ikea, you had me at valkommen.

Columnist gets sneak peek at Tampa's Ikea before Wednesday's grand opening 04/30/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 1, 2009 7:13am]

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