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Psychology by the Square Foot

What the Ongoing Boom in Self-Storage Facilities Says About Human Nature, Uncertain Times and the Anxieties of American Culture

August 10, 2003|Victoria Clayton | Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer living in Westlake Village.

Before those big orange public storage signs and others like them dotted the sides of Southern California freeways, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm had already posed this prescient question: "If I am what I have, and what I have is lost, who then am I?"

It's not something veteran self-storage managers David and Tina Fleming take lightly. The Flemings are itinerant self-storage facility managers, and David recently found himself in Las Vegas among the 3,700 self-storage owners and managers from around the country who gathered for this year's annual Inside Self-Storage Expo. The Flemings understand something deep and often dark about people and the crazy ways they relate to their possessions. For example, they will tell you about the customers they call the Queen Anne Chair Couple. It goes like this: A husband and wife come in to rent a small unit for a chair--just a single chair--they bought at an auction for $200. "The wife promised her husband if he bought it she'd refurbish it and they'd make their money a few times over," Tina Fleming recalls. "Then his wife ended up passing away and he came in and told us he hated that chair from the beginning, she never fixed it up like she said she would, and asked us how he could get rid of it." But that was after a three-year run during which the Queen Anne ran up nearly $2,000 in storage fees. Tina sees an even more dramatic story beneath the surface: a man dealing with disappointment and grief, and finally deciding to move on.

The Flemings also could tell you about the Glider Family. The family lost their home and rented two of the largest units--10 feet by 30 feet--to house about 10 rooms of furniture and the contents of a garage. They crammed the units to the ceilings with couches, lawn furniture, appliances, their little boy's toys. It took 2 1/2 years before the family got back on its feet. "They finally found a place to live, and they open their units and right away ask me if I have a Dumpster or if I can take some of the stuff off their hands. My husband and I bought a patio glider from them, but they gave away or threw away most of the rest of the stuff," says Tina. "Over the course of those two or three years, when they were hurting for money, you'd think that they would've sold that stuff instead of paying to store it."

But when it comes to material possessions, David Fleming says, the ties that bind can be stronger than logic--particularly when the owner is under stress. At 34, Fleming is the closest thing you'll find to a self-storage sociologist. Named manager of the year by two different trade publications (once in 1998 and again, with wife Tina, as co-managers of the year in 2000), Fleming--with his booming voice and brown flattop--is regularly invited to speak to other managers and writes a column for Inside Self-Storage, an industry trade magazine."They call self-storage managers 'bartenders without a shot glass' because you're dealing with people and their issues," he says, surveying the Inside Self-Storage Expo floor in Las Vegas. "You're not only a storage counselor, but you're a psychological counselor. Sometimes you learn more about people than you want."

The Flemings and others in the self-storage business have ringside seats to what some consider a telling--and troubling--cultural pathology. The symptoms aren't hard to spot in these uncertain times. Drive a 10-mile freeway stretch and you'll likely be able to count at least a handful of self-storage facilities discreetly tucked away. There are, for example, at least six facilities visible from the 101 Freeway between Thousand Oaks and Woodland Hills. About 1,400 of the estimated 31,000 self-storage facilities in the United States are in Southern California, with each area facility averaging 55,000 square feet.

The phenomenal popularity of EBay is fueled in part by those obsessed with collecting everything from Disney ceramic bells to Tiger Woods Wheaties boxes, then trying to sell it to others with the same acquisitive impulse. A recent visit to EBay's "collectibles" category found 1,562,773 items offered. Given the tendencies of the sellers, it's not hard to imagine them doing a little compulsive shopping while they're online checking the latest bids. One suspects they're the same people fueling the scrapbook craze.

Russell Belk, a professor at the University of Utah who studies possessiveness and materialism, says that our impulse to acquire and keep things serves a function. "Our possessions remind us of who we are," he says.

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