At 9:30 am I arrived at the Philadelphia IKEA, located at 2206 S. Columbus Boulevard in South Philly, with a bag concealing 5 paperback copies of I Am Genghis Cum and approximately two dozen promotional pens with the slogan "I DONATED SPERM AND THEN TOUCHED THIS PEN" and the website "www.violetlevoit.com".
IKEA doesn't open until 10 am. All the "rooms" on the display floor were cordoned off behind a rope. I went back down to the first floor and saw my first target -- a tasteful display in charcoal, cream, and wine, situated directly near the front entrance. My book's bright red cover fit in beautifully with the color scheme.
After placing the book, I saw the smoked glass semicircle dome of a security camera on the ceiling, aimed right at the front door. No good. In an attempt to minimize any further impressions of my identity to IKEA staff members, I hid in a bathroom stall for the 10 minutes until an announcement came over the intercom declaring IKEA officially open.
First order of business:pick up a blue store map and adopt the facial expression of a shopper whose confusion is just bordering on annoyance -- not peeved enough that someone would come help me, but just enough that they'd get out of my way. I figured taking pictures of furniture with my cell phone would not draw attention, but it was essential that my behavior not alert anyone to my true purpose.
This was my key strategy: 1) find an unpopulated display area, 2) determine where the prop books were, and 3) quickly slip my book in with the prop books already on the shelves. (I resolved not to place my book in the kid's department, as my literature is not for kids.)
Finding an unpopulated area at 10 am on a weekday was easy. There were only one or two other shoppers on the floor and very few staff members. A quick look overhead confirmed that security cameras were only situated at the entrance. (I guess you can't really shoplift a bunk bed.) To my left was a cozy living room display all set up for Christmas.
Hey, look, there's a present for you!
I reflected on how I'm doing the opposite of shoplifting. I'm shopdropping, truly a victimless crime if there ever was one. This book retails for $8.99, IKEA. If someone buys it, it's your benefit. If someone takes it, it takes nothing from you. It's a present from me to a new reader. The act of shopdropping also made my job easier, because no one expects consumers to deposit the items they want to be able to buy in stores.
The exhilaration of what I was doing sped up my pace. I realized I was walking too fast to be an IKEA shopper. People in IKEA stroll, and amble, and linger. I walked as slowly as I could to the next display.
Aww, what a practical and ergonomic home office! And with all the books you need right at your fingertips!
I filled the pencil jar with pens and went on my way.
This bookshelf was tricky, because it was above a doorway and just barely within my reach. Just as I worked up my courage, another shopper came around the corner. I quickly feigned interest in a duvet. I almost lost my courage until I saw this piece of art:
"Shh, I'll keep your secret." Okay, sexy Roy Lichtenstein knock-off, you've convinced me. I guess everyone's culture jamming today.
It struck me that so much of IKEA's existence hinges on an ideal of "home" as a cozy, inviolate space. I like coziness as much as the next person, but isn't there more to being alive than dozing in a warm beanbag all day? "Home" at its best, for me, is a safe space to explore ideas and concepts that may not be ready for the world at large. By putting copies of my unusual and iconoclastic book in IKEA, I'm challenging customers to expand their definition of "safe": Why settle for "home" merely being a gemutlich womb, and instead make it a laboratory for your most nascent and outrageous world-changing ideas?
I had to get rid of all the books in my bag, because what if I got caught? The last drop (which I don't have a picture of and you'll just have to find yourself when you go) was the trickiest. I will just say there was a certain amount of satisfaction in culture bombing the exact bedroom set me and my ex-husband owned, back when I was a miserable housewife, and that this was the hardest drop because it was directly in the eyeline of an IKEA staff member. I only escaped notice because he was glued to a computer monitor.
After that I beat a hasty retreat to the parking lot. I hypothesized that anyone can walk as fast as they want as long as they hold a cell phone to their ear and put a sour expression on their face, and I was right.
On the way home I thought about the idea of books as decoration. It doesn't bother me that IKEA wants their "rooms" to look nice. I agree, a room with books is nicer than a room without. What bothers me is the idea that books are only decoration, and not a visible reminder of the occupant's intellectual life. I've been guilty of trying to browse through the books in IKEA displays, only to find that I can't -- not only because they're in Swedish, but because they're remainders: forgotten books bought at bulk because no one wanted them. And it's not like the Swedes can't write. I've never seen a book by Vilhelm Moberg, or Par Lagerkvist, or even Astrid Lindgren on an IKEA shelf. What if I'd picked up a book at IKEA and discovered an English translation of Selma Lagerlof for the first time? If IKEA's willing to introduce me to the joys of lingonberry jam in the cafe downstairs, why can't they do for Swedish literature what they've done for Swedish food?
But today I've made it possible for you, the consumer, to discover something, and that's my book, five copies of which are (unless someone tells me differently) still on the shelf at the Philadelphia IKEA. If you find them, take them! They're your prize for participating in this little scavenger hunt philosophical exploration.
I'd like to remind IKEA that what I've done here today is not, as stated on your door, "distributing literature, soliciting, or trespassing". Instead, I've made everyone who visited your store today a participant in a work of performance art (protected by the First Amendment) raising questions about the meaning of literature, home, consumerism and property. And I gave you some free pens, too!