Editor’s Notebook: Crapshoot


brian_clareyThey’re allowed one look inside before they bid.

So the one guy holds his flashlight like a dart and plays the tight LED beam into the far corners of the storage space, looking for buried treasure in the 10-by-10 darkness. There are books in boxes, framed art leaning in stacks against the walls, clothes in garbage bags and draped over a late-model exercycle.

There’s always some sort of exercise equipment, Big Al says.

The self-storage business does not excite Big Al in the way, say, outdoor music festivals or the Pittsburgh Steelers do. But it’s paid the bills in his family for four generations, and he’s sure as hell not gonna drop the ball. So he runs the facilities, counts the beans and, when the time comes, auctions off the stuff from rental agreements gone bad in a necessary bit of profit recovery that attracts a brand of gamblers and scavengers with cash in hand and trucks at the ready.

Flashlight spits tobacco juice into a plastic Coke bottle he’s kept in the side pocket of his dusty gray cargo shorts. He drives the bid for a 5-by-10, showing an old TV and weathered armchair, up from $50 to $180 before pulling back. It goes for $240.

Lot B-104’s got a mud-caked scooter parked near the front.

“If it’s foreign made,” Flashlight warns the couple dozen bidders, “it’s hard to get parts.” This bit of wisdom is instantly accepted as gospel. Nevertheless, the contents of B-104 goes for $375, and the buyer discovers a trove of good wood furniture under the bundled rags.

Every lot is a gamble — even Big Al is forbidden by law to check out what’s inside. And for every scavenged six-figure antique or piece of priceless art are thousands of everyday spaces with old clothes, boxes of videotapes, a couch with suspicious stains on it and maybe a Bowflex. For what it’s worth, Big Al says he’s never seen a big storage-auction score. Ever.

Most of the plunderers have stores where they sell the best of their buys. Some are curious collectors, and others fuel regular yard sales with their finds.

As a business enterprise, the key to plundering storage is mathematical. For each lot purchased, the agent will either overpay or underpay and won’t find out until after she’s bought it. One overpay early in the day will necessitate an underpay before the end of the auctions just to break even or maybe come ahead.

There’s the additional cost of disposing the detritus, finally — dirty sheets, moldy baby clothes, single sneakers and such — into the landfill.

The guy who made out the best over the years, Big Al says, lived on a huge plot of land way out in a rural county.

“The guy with his own burn pile always does the best,” Big Al says.

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