Trash or Treasure

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on June 12, 2006.

One-ten, one-ten, one-ten.


In less than a minute, Randy Kerr was up to $200, with the numbers rising far more quickly than they had just moments before, when bidding started at $45.

Two hundred dollars. Sold.

The winner held up a card with his ID on it. Bidder No. 6 was now the proud owner of a storage unit filled with . . . well, filled with what?

A mattress, definitely. That was lurking in the back. And clothing had spilled out of the front of the 5-foot-by-10-foot unit, one of hundreds of similar units in one of the dozens of storage facility scattered up and down Roosevelt Boulevard. But what was hidden in the crannies under the mattress? What was in the sealed boxes behind the clothes?

No time to find out now. No. 6 quickly snapped a padlock on his new unit - he has 48 hours to clear it out - and set off after Kerr's golf cart, crowding around another unit with a dozen or so other potential bidders to see what was inside.

Each bidder with his or her own motivation. Each unit with its own mysteries.

Auctioneer Kerr has been gaveling these mysteries away to the highest bidder for a decade, coming across his own fair share of bizarrities along the way. The most surprising find? A dead body, sitting inside a car, the victim of apparently self-inflicted carbon monoxide poisoning.

Whatever the surprises in the unit, though, there's always one constant: The crowd of nomads, almost all regulars, who trail behind Kerr - from unit to unit, from storage facility to storage facility - some looking for hidden treasure, some looking just to grind out an unconventional living, all wondering what will be revealed when those metal doors are opened.

"You never know what people are going to store," Kerr said. "I sold a casket one time. There wasn't anyone in it."

In exchange for a look inside this business - this way of life - the storage company and many of the bidders asked that their full names not be used.

The dozen or two bidders who show up at the auctions, which are held across the region every couple of days, are a motley crew. Ex-military. Early retirees. Antique experts. Flea market denizens and eBay habitu├ęs. There's just one thing they have in common: "If you're not a gambler," said Jim Roberts, one of the bidders, "this is not the business for you to be in."

Each door that goes up is a pile of personal belongings to be pored through - gambling is inherent in the process.

Storage units are auctioned off when the renter of the unit stops paying. Most storage facilities don't like the job, said Joe, the storage company manager running the auction.

"We're not in the auction business, we're in the storage business," Joe explained in between recording the name of a unit's winning bidder and the $100 that he now owed. Oftentimes, he said, the company gets less than 50 cents on the dollar; the unit that just sold for $100, for example, had racked up a $700 bill.

Units are sold for cash only - plus tax. If the contents aren't cleared out in two days, the purchaser faces a $100 fine and "is asked not to come back." Randy Kerr and his brother, who own an auctioneer company, are hired to do all of its auctions, and other storage facilities have similar setups. Some facility somewhere on the First Coast will be holding an auction almost every day of the week, with the sales advertised in the newspaper and on signs in front of the units, attracting the attention of hard-core bidders and neophytes.

Storage unit renters fall into a couple of broad categories, and those that are most likely to stop paying the rent fall into categories of their own. The most common among the non-paying group: People who were evicted, forcing them to rapidly dump all their possessions into storage. Breakups, where an unlucky lover must evacuate from shared quarters. Death, where a loved one's possessions have to be moved, but grief prevents the survivors from sorting through them. Often, the same troubles that led to eviction lead to nonpayment of rent. The jilted lover moves on to someone else. The chore of going through Mom's old photographs is too distasteful.

They are, instead, left behind in one of the estimated 1.5 million abandoned units across the state that storage unit scavengers rifle through in search of treasure.

Sometimes, the owner shows up.

"It's awkward. It's awkward all around," said a bidder we've agreed to call Michael. He is a regular - he's been buying at auctions for more than five years - and is well-known by fellow auction-attendees. He, like many of the regulars, did not want his name used because it might give other bidders a competitive advantage if people had too much insight into his bidding methods..

Most bidders said they'll turn over personal items, such as paperwork or photos, to the former owner, but are matter-of-factly hard-nosed about given back anything else. "I bought it," Michael said. "You have to set boundaries."

The regulars are equally harsh toward newcomers hoping for an easy break. "You don't want new people getting something good," Michael said, while another bidder said "new people with an attitude get bid up."

New people, with an attitude or not, start out with the same blank slate as everyone else. Generally, the storage facility doesn't open the units before the action starts: When the door is rolled open on auction day, all the bidders get a first look at the contents together.

And a look means just that. There's no touching, no pawing through the contents. The only information a bidder is working with is what they can see from outside the room, with the help, sometimes, of a flashlight.

Of course, an experienced eye helps. And that's something that, as a group, the bidders possess.

This is a crowd that can tell the size of a mattress from 20 paces. A group that knows instantly if that furniture is real wood or press board. The type of people that take one look at a refrigerator and know the chances that it's still working.

The odds are, in their professional judgment, that the answers to those questions aren't good. "People store so much trash," said Steve, shaking his head as he walked away from a unit. "It's like playing the lottery: 75 percent of this is garbage."

But the garbage must be sifted, just in case. "You've got to carry the good away with the bad," Daniel Moses, an auction regular, explained to a new bidder. "You buy everything in it."

"Garbage," of course, is relative. Some bidders don't buy clothes; some don't buy furniture; some don't buy kitchen goods. No one, it appears, wants exercise equipment, which seems to sit in half the storage units being auctioned.

Some contents are clearly useless, like the plates that Robert Williamson has seen with food still stuck to them. Some content turns off bidders for practical reasons, like a dearth of storage space or concerns about how to haul it away: "That furniture looks heavy," one bidder said, turning away from a unit to go have a smoke. "There's not enough boxes."

But most units feature something useful to someone, depending on what niche the bidder occupies.

Vikkie Rushing, for instance, spends a lot of time on eBay, getting rid of CDs and DVDs that other bidders won't even look at. Retiree Clayton Steed, on the other hand, is looking for small appliances and tools, things he can take to the flea market, while Michael is hoping to find items for antique dealers, disdaining anything new. In the long run, all of the bidders said, they make money, even if it's just enough to supplement retirement income, but "the long run" can include some pretty deep lows as well as, they hope, a few stratospheric highs. All of the people mentioned in this story say they make their living buying and selling items at storage auctions.

Many of the items are destined for the great circle of junk, going from a storage unit scavenger to a garage sale to a flea market to eBay, no doubt eventually coming to rest in a garage or an attic or, dare we say, a storage unit.

Of course, no matter what their niche, all the bidders are looking for the big score - although it's surprising for a group that self-identifies as gamblers how small a score they'll settle for: "I'll probably get my money out of this one," said Steve, as he loaded up a unit he bought earlier in the day for a couple hundred dollars. "You know, if you break even, you're fine."

Not breaking even isn't fine. Take Jesse and Angela Hall, a couple who bought so much stuff from storage units that they built a garage just to store the stuff before holding mammoth yard sales. A couple months of bad breaks scuttled their funds, though, requiring the couple to sell their bedroom set for seed money.

The chance of a truly big score, of coming across hidden treasure, is at least part of what keeps the Halls in the game, even if they know how rare such finds are. The stories are out there: the motorcycles hidden behind the mattresses, the strongbox of cash in a decrepit filing cabinet, the sterling silver bought for $200 and sold for $4,000.

But the truth might be a bit more prosaic. "Some people say they always find jewelry, always find shotguns," Jesse Hall said. "David [another bidder] has shown us the same jewelry four times."

Instead, the bidders end their day hauling away, mostly, what you'd expect to find in a storage unit: Tools, clothing, furniture. Unsent Christmas cards and unpaid bills. A time-vault-worth of pictures from youth soccer matches and dinner parties.

But, "it only takes one or two pieces to make it worthwhile," Michael said, while squeezing through boxes to the back of a unit he just spent $500 on.

A few hours after the auction closed, he hadn't found those pieces. Instead, the unit seems filled with furniture that is old rather than antique, silverware that is plated rather than solid, collectibles that no one actually collects.

"I don't see the money," said Michael, who's honed his skills the hard way: In his first two months haunting storage unit auctions, he said, he lost $5,000.

Poking through the unit is like a flashback through the decades - an old fondue set, beat-up board games, records that aren't in good enough condition to interest a collector, knickknacks and gimcracks.

"I'm discouraged now," he said, wiping sweat off his forehead. "I've worked for nothing."

Michael admits that he easily gets discouraged; almost every time he wins a unit, he's willing to sell it to another bidder, the victim of immediate buyer's remorse. But the unit, which first looked so good, good enough to risk $500 on, and then looked so bad, turned out to be somewhere in the middle, containing enough for Michael to break even as well as pay for gas.

The outcome of that one unit, though, didn't matter so much. Win or lose, Michael was back for another round the following week.

"This is an addictive life for a lot of people," he said. "That's why we keep doing it. It's my job. It's what I do for a living."

And crowded beside him were dozens of other addicts, peering into the darkness of the units, listening to Kerr's rapid-fire voice, weighing the odds.

One hundred. One hundred.

Do I hear one-ten?


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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