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What’s behind door No. 209?
“Reality TV” bears the same relationship to reality that TV dinners bear to real food: a commercially exploitable but utterly superficial resemblance.
Those who need proof can find it here in Sequim.
Just watch an episode or two of “Storage Wars,” then attend a storage unit auction.
The TV show is dramatic, with testosterone-fired bidding wars over hidden treasures.
The Sequim reality is a good deal more prosaic, mostly consisting of a couple dozen hobbyists quietly peering at a stack of boxes and assorted uninspiring stuff, then filling out a silent bid.
There are no fireworks, and to hear it told, precious few precious finds.
Mention “Storage Wars” to someone who actually owns or manages storage units and the response is almost always the same: a sigh.
Like all of the self-storage operations managers in Sequim, Michelle Ridgeway, a manager with Mini-Storage Management, says selling a customer’s stuff is the very last thing they want to do. “We usually call people and make arrangements because we hate doing that,” she said.And, she added, very few people leave anything of value. “Those shows must be rigged,” she said.
Diane Shager, manager of A Cost-Less Mini Storage, also said “Storage Wars” is bogus: “What the show has done is prompt more break-ins. They think there’s treasure in them. In these hard times, they think they’re going to find $3,000 to $4,000 worth of stuff in there.”
A bidder at a recent auction simply snorted at “Storage Wars.” “(That’s) all about the personality of the people on the show,” he said.
In Sequim, personality doesn’t enter into it.
A very civil war
The TV show suggests these events are fun and exciting. Storage unit auctions are interesting, but not in the way the show suggests. It’s a good deal more subtle.
And it’s a good deal more sad.
Before hosting a recent auction, Carol Pope, the manager of All Safe Mini Storage in Sequim, described her feelings, saying, “This is the last thing we want to do. It always feels so bad.”
In September, Pope handled the third and fourth auctions her company has sponsored in the past six months. Prior to those it had been four years since the previous auction.
Julie Vig, manager of Sequim Sunnyside Mini-Storage, said she’s also seen more auctions in recent days.
Previously, the company “had only done two or three in the past, but we’ve done two in the past four months.”
The uptick is a sign of the hard economic times, Pope said.
She also said that every one of the auctions represents some kind of sadness. Maybe it’s dramatic, like a death or an illness. Maybe it’s just being broke.
But then there’s the other side of the equation: It has to be done.
What’s at stake
Which is not to say it’s boring. In fact, storage unit auctions are very much like the penny slots: It’s small stakes gambling that sometimes pays off — a little.
One out of four times, according to one regular bidder.
Bidders have different motivations for participating, but virtually all of those at two recent auctions had one thing in common: They chose not to give their names and asked that they not be photographed.
“I come out because I have seven Saturdays a week,” said one retiree. “It’s something to do.”
Treasure wasn’t on the agenda for another bidder, who simply was in the market for a chest of drawers. She wanted to see if one was available in the unit up for auction.
One fellow at the All Safe Mini Storage auction held Saturday, Sept. 17, bemoaned the lack of opportunity in Sequim.
“I used to make a living at this in California,” he said. “It was pretty lucrative.”
One time in Palm Springs, he said, he paid peanuts for a unit that had a 2-carat diamond within. But that was Palm Springs, he was quick to repeat.
Another time he picked up “a whole household of stuff” for $700.
The fellow who won the unit at All Safe that Saturday morning paid $176 for it. He wasn’t releasing his name, permission to take his photo or his profits beyond a simple, “I’m doing OK.”
In an earlier conversation with another bidder, he described himself as not only a “prospector by nature,” but a prospector in fact.
And he’s flexible. Old TVs aren’t valuable as TVs, he said, adding that a 32-inch TV can weigh 150 pounds. “Nobody wants that.”
But some can be dismantled for the fresnel lens they contain. “You can make a blast furnace out of that,” he said. He’s still hunting nuggets.
With a bid of $357, Matt Sather of Port Angeles picked up a much more promising unit Saturday, Sept. 24, a unit that included a knock-off Chippendale china cabinet and a massive TV.
“I saw a couple hundred dollars worth of stuff,” he said to explain his bid.
That led him to believe there were more goodies tucked away.
Like most people who are serious about the hobby (his kids enjoy it, too), Sather enjoys the work that follows. Like most who manage to turn a profit from “Storage Wars,” he has a system in place for liquidating the goods.
Sather first researches the value of the various found items and then sells them using the most appropriate venue. “Craigslist to sell the stuff locally,” he said. “You’d be surprised how fast it will be sold.”
When it’s appropriate, Sather uses eBay to sell internationally.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Storage Wars: How it works
Carolyn Morrison, the manager of Angeles and Bayview Storage in Port Angeles, provided the standard script for storage unit auctions, saying that once all potential bidders are registered, she opens the doors to the unit for about 10 minutes. No one can go in.
What you see from the door is what you get.
Unlike the TV show, virtually all of the auctions conducted on the peninsula are done by silent bid.
All of the bidders write down a figure, the manager reads them and the stuff goes to the highest bidder.
“It’s not a crazy thing like on TV,” Morrison said. “No one is coming to blows.”
The show has increased the number who call inquiring, but for the most part the folks who show up for an auction are old familiar faces, she said.
Julie Vig, manager of Sequim Sunnyside Mini-Storage, pointed out that setting up an auction also is a paperwork hassle.
The owners of the storage unit must send two certified letters to the person who is renting the unit. “We can send the first on Day 15,” she said. “But we don’t proceed that quickly.” By the 30th day, the second can go out.
If there is no contact from the owner, “by 45 days the goods are considered abandoned.”
“We keep it all confidential,” Vig said. No family member or friend of a Sunnyside employee can bid.
And no one is told who owned the stuff in the unit.
In addition, all personal items — all “documents, photographs, photo albums, journals and baby books” — must be returned to Vig, who then returns them to their rightful owners. “I contact the customer and they come pick them up. No cost,” Vig said.
Owners of other rental unit operations also require the return of personal items.
Money received in the auction goes to pay the renter’s outstanding balance. “If there’s excess, it’s returned to the customer,” Vig said.