I've always had a love/hate relationship with Ikea, the build-it-yourself furniture superstore. One the one hand, even before the recession I appreciated a bargain, and I like to think that even if I had $5,000 to spend on an end table, I wouldn't be so wasteful. Walking through Ikea's beautiful but maze-like showroom and seeing the ridiculously low prices gives me the same high I got the first time I went to Loehmann's (back in the day when it was a real outlet with real discounts; heck, I went to the original one in the Bronx, where I fought for mirror space with an entire Mah Jongg club, only to emerge triumphantly with a beautiful lined wool coat for $40).
However, when I bring home my clothing finds from Loehmann's (or TJ Maxx or Target), all I have to do is cut the tags off, maybe fix a loose button or take up a hem. With Ikea furniture, even a simple end table comes in hundreds of pieces, and furthermore, there are no instructions, just a series of weirdly drawn, confusing diagrams. (hank goodness I helped my boys do all those stupid Bionicles and Legos, with pre-literate instructions - but it's still confusing. With almost every piece I've assembled, I've made a significant mistake (put on the drawer bottom incorrectly so the raw side shows, or screwed in the side legs backwards so the table is lopsided). And inevitably I lose or misplace one of the little annoying pieces, the wood pegs or odd-shaped screws.
Last night the boys and I started on David's desk (replacing the one he's had since he was a baby - he's almost 16, so even though we really couldn't afford new furniture, it was time!). For most of the evening it was actually a wonderful bonding experience, where I gained new appreciation for Ben's strength and David's coordination, and they realized that their mother actually knew something about assembling furniture. (It was also a great opportunity for the boys' favorite game, adding "that's what she said" to otherwise innocuous sentences to make them sound dirty - since we were dealing with screws, nuts, and protrusions that had to fit into corresponding holes, you can just imagine the conversation.) I was glowing with maternal pride (until we ended up screaming at each other about which parts needed to be put away so the dog wouldn't eat them, or something like that). I just pray today's session ends a little more smoothly - but I already have frayed nerves, scraped fingers and a sore back from the dresser we just completed, so even under the best conditions, assembling Ikea furniture leaves me pretty ragged.
So why do I keep going back? Sure, part of it is the money - I've bought (and assembled) 2 nightstands, a coffee table, the desk in my office, several bookcases, and 4 deskchairs for what a nightstand would cost in a regular furniture store. But it's also the thrill of the bargain, as well as that profound sense of accomplishment I get when I close the drawer in a bedside table that I built myself. (Okay, it doesn't close all the way, but I still built it!) And I hope I'm teaching my kids the satisfaction of doing something for themselves, as well as how to wield a screwdriver, how to read weird diagrams, and how to apologize to their loved ones after they lose their temper.