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Bids on Lives Left Behind

At auctions of storage units, the contents are a mystery. Amid the junk buyers may find Rolexes and diamonds, or just someone else's sad story.

May 09, 2006|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

The auction regulars arrive early in the morning, prepared for a day of bidding mostly on stuff they cannot see.

Some carry cups of coffee. One woman snuggles her pet Chihuahua under her coat.

Today could be the day they find treasure. Bidders have been known to snag diamonds. Rolex watches. Even the diaries of Paris Hilton.

But this is far from the rarefied formalities of Sotheby's or Christie's. It's a wind-swept self-storage facility near the end of a runway at the Riverside Municipal Airport.

During the last two decades, self-storage facilities like Airport Mini Storage have sprouted across the American landscape -- along freeways, under high-power electric lines, on land that could be used for little else. The self-storage business is booming thanks to a nation of pack rats who cling to such things as 8-track tapes and pants with waist sizes long surpassed.

But many renters lose their belongings when they cannot pay their bills. Or when they die. That has bred a little-known offshoot industry: legions of self-described recyclers who earn a living buying entire storage units at auctions, then peddling their bounty at flea markets, garage sales and on EBay.

Making money off of another person's misfortune requires a sharp eye for clues, some luck and a bit of stoicism when coming across the broken pieces of other people's lives.

"Sometimes you get a whole story out of someone's life," said Greg Daniels, among 30 bidders at the Riverside facility. "First you get the wedding pictures. Then you get the divorce papers. Then the drug paraphernalia, the letters from jail.

"You get the whole sad story."

Last Resort

Heartbreak is what auctioneer Michael Joyce often encounters when he cuts the wire seal off storage units.

At Airport Mini Storage, the doors roll up and there are toys, tools, sofas and other artifacts of lives lived elsewhere. Bidders file past quickly in a procession that resembles a funeral viewing. But there is little time for sentimentality. The mood is businesslike.

The door goes up on a large unit containing 13 used washing machines and four refrigerators.

"All guaranteed to work," cries out one bidder, sarcasm dripping.

"Scrap metal," yells another.

It goes for $30.

Joyce generally begins the bidding at $50. But he has enough experience to start at $200 or into four figures if he senses that the bidders are interested in the goods.

Joyce's biggest sale was on two units in Los Angeles several months ago that went for $26,000. They had been rented by a video production company and were full of editing and other video equipment.

Joyce, 55, is a trim, carefully coifed man who zooms from auction to auction on a Honda Gold Wing touring motorcycle, his briefcase bungeed to the passenger seat. Most transactions -- from opening the door to "sold!" -- last less than five minutes. Some take mere seconds. He gets 15% to 30% of all sales.

With its transient and propertied population, Southern California is the capital of the U.S. self-storage business, which boasts 45,000 facilities.

Facilities hold auctions every couple of months to clear out deadbeats and make way for paying customers. But it's a last resort, said Kim Devore, regional manager of the chain that owns Airport Mini Storage, which has 1,078 units.

"We usually get pennies on the dollar at an auction," Devore said.

Scouting Locations

Auction regulars daily scour Internet sites for upcoming sales. Perhaps the most calculating bidder at the Riverside facility is Dolores Herrera, 38, of nearby Rubidoux.

She attends about three auctions a week, choosing her venues carefully.

"I like to go to developing areas," said Herrera, who is raising two daughters and has little extra money. "That's where people are putting their stuff, good stuff, in storage while preparing to buy property."

Herrera knows that they might run into financial trouble and have to leave their stored stuff behind.

She also favors Sun City and other areas with sizable populations of elderly people. Herrera regularly checks newspaper obituaries. "That's where you find people who have passed on and left antiques," she said.

But all her calculation could come to naught when the door goes up and the goods are shrouded in the staple of the storage industry: cardboard boxes.

Joyce does not permit bidders to enter a storage unit -- not even an inch -- because the contents legally belong to the renter until sold.

They must stand at the door and look, using flashlights to get a better view of whatever is visible. And they can't reach in to touch anything.

Herrera has a few tricks. From the doorway, unit No. 7304 reveals little. There are a few stacked books covered with dust, including "Expository Dictionary of Bible Words." She focuses on several closed boxes -- one labeled "Mikasa" and another marked "French Fries From Potatoes."

But Herrera sees more. "What got me interested was that everything was neatly stacked," she said. "The person was very conscientious about the way they kept things."

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