When we had to move out of our rental house and into our trailer we sold almost everything we owned.  Furniture, artwork, clothing, toys, yard tools, TV, VCR, coffee pot, kitchenware, dog food bowls…well, nearly everything!  But try as you might to downsize there are always things you can’t part with for one reason or another.  I had to save boxes of paperwork, and thought it was worth saving things that we could use once we were back in a house and clothing the younger kids might grow into in the next year. I had a work wardrobe that I hoped I’d need again soon and I couldn’t give up my entire library or the things I bought for the children to commemorate their birth heritage.  And the kids didn’t want to give up everything they’d collected or earned or cherished.   So we did what so many people do – we rented a storage unit.  And it’s jam-packed – both with the things we couldn’t give up and things I subsequently bought to try and sell on eBay or Craigslist. 

Some days when I stop by the storage center to remove or put something in our unit I see units double locked – one lock bearing the little red sticker warning the unit ‘owner’ that they are in danger of the storage unit version of being foreclosed.  “See the manager” the stickers say. Or I see a flyer posted advertising an auction of storage units whose rent has not been paid.  I make a mental note – remove all valuables from our unit if in danger of defaulting on rent!

There have always been storage unit auctions – people die, or go to prison, or for one reason or another abandon their unit, and the owners of the storage center, unable to reach the renter or extract the rent from them, sell the contents to settle the debt owed.  With the current economy these auctions have increased – more people have to downsize and store things, and more unit renters eventually find themselves behind on their rent.  Conversely more people are also looking for alternative or additional sources of income and are buying up units for items to resell at the swap meet or on eBay.  It’s sort of a microcosm of the economy, one in which the majority of both sides – losers and winners– are poor folks already beaten down by the recession.

In a recent article in the San Diego Union Tribune, Kimberly Pretto, president of Kobey’s Swap Meet, calls the increased number of storage unit vendors a “very sad thing” while noting that it is a new contingent of vendor that’s very strong in the market right now.

A measure of the new avid interest in storage unit auctions is the number of websites offering ‘how to’ guides, or tips for attending, and making a profit from these auctions, such as: How to Be Successful With Storage Unit Auctions,  Storage Auction Secrets (a website selling a slightly sleazy  e-book so I’m not linking it- you can hunt it up yourself if so inclined), and Storage Auctions, a Good Bid for Sellers, and How to Profit from Storage Unit Auctions.  All of these websites focus on the potential bidder – little is said about the person whose belongings are lost.

So here’s the view from the other side – J. Moore’s reflections on having lost a storage unit.  Moore (not sure whether that’s Mr. or Ms.) fell behind on a few payments and found out after the fact that the unit was sold.  What was in it?  “All my pictures, my cat ashes and 2 favorite stuffed animals, which I have had since I was 1 year old, one was from each of my grandmothers and all the other things and gifts from family I had left that I cherished and can NEVER BE REPLACED.”   Despite leaving a message with the ‘auction person’ asking for help in getting in touch with the winning bidder in order to retrieve some of these personal, and not profitable (who buys cat ashes) items, J. Moore never heard back.  “Vultures” is the term Moore uses for people who buy storage units.   

I, myself, have benefited from this system.  Although I’ve attended a few auctions I haven’t bid on any.  I don’t have the cash reserves or the space to store things. But I have, down the line, purchased things that others have unwillingly deserted in their storage units, to resell on eBay.  Several local liquidating businesses, in addition to buying up estates or stores that have gone out of business, regularly buy the abandoned contents of storage units and resell them – to people looking to save money on purchases (clothing is especially cheap and furniture and appliances are sold way below retail), and people who try to turn them over for a profit.  And I shop there.  But I’m not entirely comfortable with it, and while pawing though boxes of office supplies, DVDs, books, toys and clothing, I can’t help to wonder at the fates that have befallen the previous owners.   The photo albums and historical or genealogical mementos bother me the most.  Old black and white stiff portraits of solemn people dressed in their Sunday best, the family snapshots of children playing in wading pools in the backyard, or hugging the dog in a strangle-hold or blowing out candles in a blurry faded color Polaroid.  Who are these people and where are the people who cared for them?

And the boxes after boxes of dinosaurs, actions figures and hot wheel cars.  Is there a little boy mourning their loss or are they long forgotten treasures of an adolescent who has moved on to fixate on video games and the opposite sex? 

Or one person’s purple collection – purple candles, bath soaps, shower curtain, slippers, dishes, scarves, oven-mitts, lingerie, even purple  post-it notes – as I looked (in amazement frankly) through these boxes of purple possessions I had to hope that the fact that they were stored meant the owner had moved beyond this obsession and had opened up to a variety of colors.  Maybe for that person losing the storage unit was a good thing!

When we moved from our Colorado house we left some things stored in the basement with the intent to retrieve them at a later date.  Some of those things were irreplaceable – for instance Christmas ornaments collected over a span of nearly a half century.  My mother started the tradition – adding a Christmas ornament with some significance for each child each year, and I’d continued it with my children.  We didn’t need them at the time we moved but we cherished them and never thought to lose them.  But by the time we evicted the squatter in our house they were gone – who knows where.  Did he throw them out in a fit of spite?  Sell them at the swap meet along with our collection of lighted Christmas village buildings?  That loss still festers with me and now when I look at the books and clothing and kitchenware and the little collections of figurines and vases and such retrieved from abandoned storage units the cost to other people’s lives is almost palpable.  Somehow I don’t think those people shop here – I’m surrounded by happy bargain hunters focused on their own gain or potential profit. 

So far we have been able to make our rent on our storage unit.  This month I’m trying to cull out some things to get us down to a smaller unit at a lower rent.  Some of this is just sorting out papers – a few boxes of ancient financial and academic papers will go to the free shredding day a local bank is hosting – and books (going to the school rummage sale to raise funds for the various field trips).  Some of it – I’m thinking family photos and genealogy records – will be shipped to my sister for safe keeping.   Perhaps I’ll include a few other things as well.  Who knows what next month will bring?

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