He sounded great on the phone: a courteous, practical man with a calm demeanor. I liked him right away. In person he was even better. It's fun to chat up cheerful people who like their jobs. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to ask, let's call him Bruce, just what it's like to manage a storage facility.
Is it all junk? Mostly. A few people use their unit for work, like contractors, painters, and landscapers. That makes perfect sense; not everyone is going to want to store paint cans and lawnmowers in their apartment. In that scenario a $200-$300/month storage unit pays for itself. Most people don't have a business case for maintaining a storage unit. We only do it to postpone making decisions or confronting difficult emotions.
One tenant has had a unit at the facility since 1974, the year before I was born. I offered my working hypothesis that most storage units contain grief boxes from a loved one who has passed on, usually a parent. Bruce said that actually, it was her husband who had died. Probably she will meet him on the other side and all of those boxes will still be in the unit.
What happens to the stuff that people leave behind? It does get auctioned off, only now it's done online. People can bid on specific items. Much of the stuff is worthless. I shared about one of my toughest jobs, a storage unit that included boxes of old phone books, rusted-out cans of expired food, stained mattresses, and damp paperbacks. Bruce nodded along, obviously unfazed by the description.
"We had a hoarder who lost his unit, and it was just like that. Actually he still has two units here." From the sound of it, the three-storage-unit hoarder was struggling to keep up on his payments and was about to lose the others as well.
Had Bruce heard about the reality TV shows about storage unit auctions? Indeed he had. "They keep calling me but I won't do it." Why is that? "They're rude." Also, the shows are staged and they won't let the public in to bid on the units, only their own people. "If you watch carefully, sometimes they show the same lot on more than one show, with a couple of different items." He said they also 'salt the mine' by supplying valuable items that were not stored in the unit. This met my hunch about the few episodes I've seen; I've never seen one single item of any value in any storage unit. Much of it includes stuff people would have to pay to have hauled away.
We saw a unit with a car parked halfway inside. There was a couch with a TV at the back. "It looks like someone's living there," I remarked. "That's my parking space," said Bruce. "I take breaks there when I can get away." I asked whether people ever tried to live in the units. "Yeah, sometimes."
Bruce is a real pro. He had us drive through the gate with our 20' foot moving van. "You have a twenty-foot van and a 10 by 15 storage unit?" He tactfully offered to show it to us and we all boarded his little golf cart. The unit had a man-door. We saw at a glance that the dimensions of the unit and lack of a roll-top door made it impractical, although the cubic footage was the same as the van. We accepted the professional expertise of the estimable Bruce and allowed him to up-sell us to the next larger unit.
It took us five hours to shift the contents of the van into the new unit, which is eleven feet wide by ten feet tall by twenty feet deep. Bruce drove by on the golf cart a couple of times, glancing over and grinning at our progress. "It's like Tetris, isn't it?" We had the van empty and broom-clean with ten minutes to spare before closing time. Bruce was right; we had some wiggle room in the bigger unit but would have been wailing and gnashing our teeth with the smaller one. We couldn't have finished on time. This was a man who could size up volumes of stuff on sight. I called him a "Pack-Fu Master" and he smiled.
Storage units are a subject of endless fascination to me. What do people keep in them? Why are they willing to pay so much money every month, for years on end, with no deadline, for stuff they can't even see? I've started to think of storage facilities as our era's tombs and monuments, the places where we pay tribute to our departed dead because we have no more enduring ceremonial way to mark their passing. A Taj Mahal of box towers. Folks like Bruce are our monks, living in attendance on the temple grounds.
We plan to have our unit for about a week and a half. We're living in an Airbnb because we had less than two weeks to prepare for my husband's new job, and the alternative was a two-hour commute each way. There just wasn't time for us to look for a new place while packing to move. Our unit holds our bed, our couch, our desktop computer, the dog crate...99% of our possessions are behind that rolling door. (The rest includes the suitcases out of which we are living for the week). We told Bruce we'd see him next week. He smiled and nodded. He's heard it all before.
[We moved in on a Saturday and had moved out by close of business the following Saturday].
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.