Talk of the Town - Rear windowless May 27 2004

To forage in storage

Life is full of contradictory concepts. Fat-free hot dog. Low-carb beer. Bush administration.

Now this: "Storage facility garage sale."

Yes, the local catacomb harboring a metric ton of stuff I can neither fit into my home nor get the garbage man to take, offers a third way: the chance for us pack rats to sell it off.

It would seem to challenge the very foundation on which storage — a zillion-dollar business in the United States of Stuff — is based. Because no stuff equals no storage — and no dopes like me paying rent to keep stuff in storage.

Hey, if the storage barons want to commit commercial suicide and permit me to profit, who am I to stand in the way?

Besides, the whole storage unit thing creeps me out. Look at the people who rent them. Every serial killer fits the following profile: 1) childhood misfit; 2) adult loner; 3) keeps remains of victims in storage unit.

The last time we stopped by our unit, one night after work, the only vehicle there besides ours was a giant black SUV with blacked out windows and a festive "Fear This" license plate, accompanied by a big yellow smiley face on the back of the rearview mirror.

We decided to come back another time.

The excuse for our storage unit is this: It was acquired under duress when we were trying to sell the house. Although it can be argued that the phrases "when we were trying to sell the house" and "under duress" are redundant.

Because the first thing a Realtor says about your home is: "It's too crowded in here." So you hide half your belongings to show there's enough living space and that you live like Mahatma Gandhi.

Which brings us back to the storage sale. The management company went all out to promote the event, placing as many as one ad in the Goobertown Intelligencer, a freebie paper reaching half-a-subdivision where all the people are vacationing or foreclosed on.

The massive publicity campaign was backed up by an equal amount of signage, a placard the size of those nuisance postcards that fall out of magazines. "Garage Sale" it declaimed, in discreet lettering requiring a dedicated reader to use a jeweler's loupe.

Come sale Saturday, we got out of bed at a casual predawn hour favored by Welsh coal miners. Because if there's one thing garage sale browsers love, it's an early morning bargain. Another reason I've always been in debt.

Only a few storage unit renters opted to participate in the sale, and one can imagine the thoughts of those who did not. "Hmmm, do I sleep in and then wake refreshed to enjoy a beautiful day? Or do I haul my carcass out of bed at 6 a.m. and schlep stuff around a stuffy, windowless box for five hours? Let's see ... ."

Despite the lack of sales outlets — or perhaps because of it — our household did a brisk business hawking debris a few bucks at time. The old chair fetched $10, the designer shower curtain $5. And that wooden, well, whatever it was, went for $1.50. Before long, we had cleared $100.

As you'd expect, customers asked about price. Not for our stuff — that was marked. It was the storage units they were crazy about. Everyone wants to rent one. People are fascinated by storage. Americans may stink at saving money, but they love hoarding crap.

As for the sellers, I met one guy who regarded the entire storage unit phenomenon as an addictive curse. "I've got three of them," he muttered. "Once you're in, it's tough to get out." It was starting to resemble Godfather III, although I think our performances were better.

And the day did weave a curious, bric-a-bracky spell. Selling things, and obtaining hard cash for them, brings out the miser in you. So we had a cheap breakfast (thrifty alert: Publix features brewed-before-bleary-eyes coffee for 25 cents, not vastly different from the joe costing 600 percent more at Starbucks) and rode the caffeine/sugar high until noon, when abundant sunshine and low humidity chased everyone outdoors.

At which we packed up our Kansas City bankroll (one big bill surrounding a lot of little ones) and the storage concierge bid us adieu. Along with an invitation: "We hope you participate in our next garage sale this fall."

Great. My storage unit was almost empty. Now that they've hooked me with this Trader Vic shtick, I'll hoard junk all over again, just so I can sell more of it. And all my profit? It pays never-ending rent to the storage company.

I'm starting to think this zillion-dollar industry is in it for the money.


i>Glen Slattery may have been a childhood misfit, but he resents any further comparisons.