This weekend, my partner and I went shopping for a new bed frame. We might not be starving college students, but we’re certainly not fancy Brickellers with money to throw around either, and after looking at $1,200 beds at West Elm and CB2, we started looking for more practical options.
We drive somewhere – north? west? It all turns into one generic four lane highway when you’re sitting passenger – and we start our search at Rooms To Go.
“I don’t think this is going to work,” I say as we navigate around a 50-year-old blonde Argentine woman wearing a baseball cap and a “NO SHAME IN MY GAME” tank top, conversing loudly with a sales agent.
Kareem takes a breath. “There’s also… El Dorado.”
Up to this point, I’ve seen the big box store from the freeway. It’s mostly in the context of, “Oh. Yeah, my mom bought her furniture from El Dorado.” Being Chinese, I try to relate my hardest to what a Cuban family living room would look like: 1970s couch and a display case with polished brass to house a bunch of crystalline animal figures with fake bull horns to sit on top of husk of a mid-90s television.
“Why the hell not,” I say. “What’s it like?”
As someone not originally from Miami and here for the first time, let me tell you: El Dorado is not a furniture store, it’s an experience. I don’t know if it’s a furniture buying experience, but it’s something, and I’m going to spend the next couple of paragraphs doing my best to explain all of its magic and wonder.
The other big box furniture store everyone knows is IKEA. They both take up multiple city blocks, are both conveniently situated off of freeways for maximum visibility, and are both designed so that if you go with your significant other, one will want to spend the afternoon browsing every little thing and the other will just want to get the lamp and leave, goddamnit.
But unlike IKEA, where the Swedes give you a guided path of carefully manicured showrooms, El Dorado offers the furnishings version of a Las Vegas buffet – not the fancy buffet with the $125 brunches, but the buffet where an old man has a plate of ribs in front of him while he plays video poker, drags on his cigarette, and breathes from his oxygen tank.
We are greeted at what initially looks like a receptionist desk, next to a metal statue of a horse; I’m assuming because of the Don Quixote reference, trying to find El Dorado’s city of lost gold on his steed.
But instead of finding lost gold, it’s finding furniture at fabulous prices. Again, totally never grew up here, but my imagination immediately jumps to the potential commercial: some Cuban dude from the 80s in a fake mustache jumping off a fake horse.
“After seeing this Pink velour end table for only $499, you’ll think you will be Dreaming the Impossible Dream(TM)!”
Past the landing area, customers walk down a hallway anchored with streetlights. Each side partitions off to quarters with its own theme. It reminds me of Disneyland’s Main Street, except each and every general store opens to a prop set from Cocaine Cowboys.
— Jorge Valens (@jorgevalens) April 1, 2017
A man previously sitting in a chair gets up and walks towards us. “Hola…” his eyes flicker my direction and his Americano radar blips. “I am Humberto,” he says in English, “and I’d love to help you with anything.”
I’m not used to all of this assertive greeting while buying furniture. When I was fresh out of college and needed furniture in California, dad would get leads from his Taiwanese naval buddies and he would make me drive out to a nondescript warehouse to look at prop furniture, the stylish but uncomfortable sofas you see when you walk into a new condo for sale and they have stylish but generic furniture there so you can see how the property looks with some semblance of living inside.
“We’re just looking around,” we say to him. We, because it’s at the same time, albeit in two deliveries. Kareem says something in Spanish to the effect of “We’ll talk to you if we need any deals, alright?” Wink wink, nudge nudge.
There are many, many parts to this place. The first section is what I assume greets any new person to El Dorado Furniture: an all-peach showroom with bedazzled fucking everything – bedazzled white vanity, bedazzled white scallop headboard made from actual white scallops — the Mandelbrot Fractal of Miami beds — and a bedside lamp that may have doubled as a disco ball or a chandelier.
This photo doesn’t do it justice because I didn’t walk in thinking, “This place is so ridiculous I’m going to sit down and write about it” and wasn’t fully prepared, so you’ll have to go with me here:
This room. This whole goddamn room makes Liberace’s house look like Abe Lincoln’s childhood log cabin.
Like IKEA, sections were divided into showrooms so you could see walk around the room and see how this furniture would adapt to your everyday life. It’s just that in El Dorado, that everyday life would probably involve less cooking or sleeping or chores, and more doing a mountain of cocaine while embezzling funds from a developing country.
We pass by a hallway which goes to their warehouse. It, naturally, looks like this:
See that mirror on the left, next to the round mirror? That’s an “infinity mirror.” I’m pretty sure they have these in children’s museums. For only $700 you can install it in your bathroom, look in it and contemplate your life’s choices. I tell this as much to Kareem.
“Let’s move on,” he says.
Oh, look, “Office Dot Com!”
I think I understand where they’re going with this, so I won’t tell them that redirects to Microsoft. We step in, and there are a sea of office desks – not the ones with the crappy fake wood plastic covers, but the ones that are maroon and aqua and have that shiny vinyl coating, as if all the women from all those Patrick Nagel paintings had cashed their modeling checks and started a data entry business.
Yes, I know they sell this children’s bed at other stores across the country, as with 95 percent of all the other furniture in here.
But seriously, we’re living in America in 2017, and practically everything you eat, use and consume is produced from a factory in Shenzhen.
What this is all actually about is the curation.
“Look,” El Dorado Furniture says to you, “doesn’t your eight-year-old want to be like Mommy and Daddy when they grow up, and sit on the 836 East by the airport, screaming things at a family of seven packed into a compact car because they were three inches from sideswiping you? DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM(TM).”
So we don’t find a bed frame that fits our style. We spend some time looking at patio furniture because I think it looks the most modern of all the other furniture in the store, but that’s like convincing yourself you can dunk a basketball because you’re an average sized person at a conference full of little people.
On our way out, an unassuming display case – literally the most modest thing in the entire freaking store – gets my attention, because it’s full of mementos and articles. And there it talks about how it’s a family-run business, how a furniture making family escaped from Cuba, opened a store in Little Havana at a time when Miami wasn’t Latin at all, opened more stores, and celebrated its 50th anniversary. They boasted how proud they were that it was still a family run business. That’s kinda cool, I think.
And there’s a moment of clarity: the section of the pink and the bedazzled, the vanity with, literally, a flashing neon light used as trim – it’s ostentatious, sure. But it’s also the American Dream.
The American dream, where you can flee a country like Cuba, put in sweat equity, and succeed in a new country, just like the owners of the store did. And once you receive the fruits of your labor, you can provide for your family, send money back home, and buy an ottoman with the face of a tiger on it with the leftovers. Owning a family furniture store the size of a small British village is the ultimate act of defiance to a Communist government.
El Dorado is, basically, the most Miami thing that Miami has ever Miami’ed in Miami.
“Where are we going to get our bed, though?” I ask Kareem as we walk to the car.
“I don’t know,” he says. “Let’s look on Craigslist.”