More, more, more, store, store, store

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Daniel Chisca knew he had witnessed a bargain one day last year when he saw $400 land an Atlanta man a Hewlett-Packard, Pentium 4 computer with flat-screen monitor - along with a desk, two big color televisions, and $2,000 worth of scuba equipment.

Mr. Chisca is neither a law-enforcement official nor a black marketeer.

He runs storageauctions.org, a website on which the managers of self-storage facilities - those sprawling road-side complexes into which Americans can cram possessions for a few months or much longer - can announce sales of the contents of units on which rent has gone unpaid.

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If the self-storage phenomenon seems a glaring paradox in what's often called a throwaway society, there can be no denying its growth.

Facilities numbered about 8,000 in the mid-1980s, and experts now put the total at between 40,000 and 50,000, most consisting of hundreds of units averaging 100 square feet each.

Today, in a twist, some forms of self-storage might be considered just one more example of waste. Auctions such as the one Chisca attended in Atlanta now quietly empty as many as 120,000 abandoned and forfeited units a month nationwide, he says - freeing up space that's in voracious demand in a cycle of store and ignore.

Credit the continued interest in self-storage to a confluence of factors, experts say.

More late-life marriages mean more households with redundant furnishings. Many in a mounting wave of new retirees appear content to store, rather than unload, accumulated belongings unwanted by their already goods-laden offspring. Add to that what one social observer calls the prevailing American culture's "treadmill acquisitive behavior."

"Storage units are a symptom of a much deeper malaise," says Peter Whybrow, director of the Neuro- psychiatric Institute at UCLA and author of "American Mania: When More Is Not Enough."

"Where there's no clearly defined social hierarchy other than money, the acquisitive nature gets maximized by the need to create one's own social standing," he says. "[So] you keep what you want to flaunt and you put the rest away - because you can't bear to give it away."

Keeping it can mean paying $100 a month or more for the privilege. Powering right through recession and recovery, self-storage (or ministorage) has become a $15 billion industry with enough current capacity to add $2 billion more, says Mike Scanlon, president and CEO of the National Self-Storage Association in Springfield, Va.

Small businesses stowing extra equipment and inventory account for about one-third of rentals, experts say. But individual middle-class stuff-keepers make up the majority of renters, even though the size of the average new single-family home has more than doubled since 1950, and family size has declined.

"It's a $17 billion-a-year business devoted entirely to finding a place to store our abundance," says Daniel Pink, an author and culture watcher. "It's bigger than the motion picture production industry."

"Americans are very much junk collectors," says Chisca. "Look at the average garage."

Storage-facility managers protect the privacy of their clients, often declining to discuss what they have observed. In fact, rented space generally enjoys the same legal protection as do homes - a warrant is required for entry.

That makes buying at auction a highly speculative affair.

Look, don't touch

"People show up, the doors are thrown open, and you look from outside," Chisca says, adding that auctions are not widely attended, because few consumers know to seek them out. A few weeks back, he says, U-Haul auctioned the contents of 110 units at 70 locations.

For those who do show up, there is no opening boxes, no rooting around.

Chisca knows of one buyer who bid $500 on the contents of a garage-style unit, having glimpsed a new ride-on lawn mower inside. Later, the man found five more under some tarps. "These were models that retailed for $1,300 to $1,500 each," Chisca says.

That's fairly unusual, though, even at high-end facilities, such as Locker USA in Danvers, Mass., where Bruce Hoffman presides over one of the industry's increasingly popular variants: the high-tech, high-security, all-indoor facility.

The colossal building resembles a Spartan, clean shopping mall in the eerie, after-hours quiet. It has restrooms and vending machines. Freight elevators provide access to upper levels, where 600 new units are being built.

In the lobby, a bank of video monitors displays the loading areas. An electronic locator map helps renters find their respective places in the hive.

Many of the renters are retirees housed in the assisted-living home just down Route 1.

"The elderly have a tough time," Mr. Hoffman says. "They think they're going to pare it all down, but then they find they're not wanting to give things up."

When rents here go unpaid on abandoned units, he adds, they seldom turn out to be treasure chests. "It's nothing real fun."

Despite experiences such as Chisca's - he spent a few hundred at an auction several months ago and acquired an $8,000 slab of marble - that tends to hold true nationally.

Contents rarely exciting

"Most of the guys tell me that what's left in these things when there's an auction is usually very unspectacular, almost to the point of being worthless," says Mr. Scanlon.

The recognition of that worthlessness often dawns only after rents have become a deep financial drain, and renters perform a little cost-benefit analysis. Buying new furniture can turn out to be less costly than moving the old things across the country.

"People put [items] in for a couple a months, then a year goes by, and they're still paying $100 a month," Chisca says. "Finally, they just say, 'Forget it.' Why go through the motions of moving it out when you can just leave it behind?"

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