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The Secret Life of Storage Units in Honolulu

They may look like static warehouses on the outside but inside, Honolulu's self-storage units are bustling with hidden lives.


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Personal trainer Abraham Concepcion likes that a storage space offers privacy and affordability.

Ronald Wood’s storage locker is a mess. There are two boxes in the center, stuffed and breaking under their own weight, ringed with stacks of books and music that reach nearly to the ceiling. “I’m sorry, this isn’t very tidy,” he says. He reaches into the bottom box and plucks out a surprisingly neat bundle of folders, two inches thick. This is what he’s come here for, nearly every day, since 1990. “I call this my personal portfolio.”

He locks the unit, unbuckles his belt, and slides the storage key back onto it for safekeeping. Wood moves slowly but surely; he is thin, almost to the point of being frail, and stooped with age. He has white, curly hair in abundance and still has a strong New York accent from a childhood in Midtown Manhattan.

Today, the manager of StorQuest in Kakaako is letting him spread out the contents of the folder in his office, but usually, he sits outside his unit, organizing and reorganizing in the corridor.

The portfolio contains pages and pages documenting every single thing in the world that is important to Wood: photos of his siblings, nieces, nephews and girlfriends; newspaper clippings; printouts from the Internet; scenic photos of the places he’s visited—Rome, New Zealand, Greece, Hong Kong, Sydney. All are arranged into collages, photocopied and laminated.

There are city-view photos of Honolulu, taken over many years, from the same vantage point at Punchbowl, the city growing up as the pages turn. But what Wood really wants to talk about is Kiss Me, Kate.

His father, Charles, played Hortensio in the Broadway production from 1945 to 1953, and Wood’s pride at being the son of someone famous, even 60 years later, is obvious. He collects original cast recordings, and notes the smallest changes in the packaging from edition to edition. He recites the page numbers on which his father is named in a Broadway history book. It’s all in his storage locker, No. 2-145, in a building on an island in the middle of the Pacific: The life story of Ronald Wood, as told by Ronald Wood.

We all love to hate the massive storage buildings in our communities. They’re ugly, they’re boxy, they take up space.

But these places house the things we can’t let go of, the things we used to be, the things that we want to become. They fulfill needs we can’t meet in any other way—perhaps a need for a better life or the need to believe in better days ahead. Some storage units even contain mysteries: HPD leases storage spaces all over the city for evidence, property seized in police raids and old arrest logs.

When we roll up those metal doors, there is always a story, narrated by what we find inside.

* * * * *

“I’m like their bartender; people open up, and I hear all their stories,” says Jarod Bailon, manager of Simply Storage on Nimitz Highway. “I meet people with endless amounts of money and people who are living out of their cars. Today I had someone come in on a bike asking for spare change for the soda machine.  Then he asked about the smallest locker, costs $89.01. Right before that, I was moving in a doctor, he asked for the same size. They could be neighbors, here.”

Balion has worked as a storage manager for seven years, and says that storage, for many, is an escape.

“I had this one elderly Japanese gentleman who used to come in all the time. He’d have coffee with us.  He’d stop in three times, at least, every week. We opened the doors by 9, and he’d be in by 9:30 or 10. It was always the same routine: Make his cup of coffee, have a seat, ask how the day was going so far, did I have a lot of move-ins or move-outs today, almost like a regular at a bar.”

“I’d ask him what he was doing and he’d always say the same thing: ‘Just came to stop by and check on my things,’ like it was pets or something.”

One day Balion passed by the man’s locker and saw him sitting on a little folding chair sorting through sports cards, stamps and coins. “It was organized like a library, he’d put up plastic shelves on either side. I said: ‘Uncle, how come you come here?’ and he says: ‘I gotta get away from my wife!’ He starts laughing, then he says: ‘She’s home watching her soap operas, so I come in and do my thing here.’”

* * * * *

Goodbye garage band, hello storage band. Breath of Fire uses their unit to warm up for a gig. The band plays reggae, rock, ska and funk.

It’s 7 p.m., and business hours are over at StorKeeper, near the Convention Center. Storage spaces aren’t known for being busy, even during the daytime, and tonight there’s an eerie quiet to the place. A man and woman are still inside, moving a bed frame from one unit into another, not meeting anyone’s eyes. The only other person here is Jai Rodgers, front man for the band Breath of Fire, and he’s about to make some serious noise.

Rodgers has the obligatory boyish face and long hair of a lead singer, which he hastily pushes out of his eyes as struggles to plug in his microphone. His band only has 45 minutes to practice before showtime and Jai is ready to get warmed up.

This corrugated metal box is the band’s first real practice spot. “We were paying $35 for two hours at a studio in Kailua. This place is a lot cheaper and we don’t have to make an appointment. Plus, we wanted to be able to store stuff after gigs at, like, 3 a.m.,” says Rodgers.

His brother, Daniel, and father, Bill, arrive—ready to play. They’ll be two band members short for tonight’s gig at Snappers in Waikiki, so practice is interrupted by frequent calls to the band’s bassist, who is sick.

Bill is in the corner looking impatient. “Just get a backup!” He fiddles with his silver trombone while his boys figure it out between sets. They play a few songs, effortlessly melodic, seem satisfied and pack up to leave. The gig starts soon, but they’ll be back.

* * * * *

Across the island in Kapolei, Abraham Concepcion is changing lives in his storage unit, one crunch at a time.  His space is mirrored and carpeted with soft, slip-resistant pads. Hip-hop music pours from the door, which opens to the outside.

Right now he’s in a personal training session with a woman who’s balancing on one leg and trying to touch the ground. She’s smiling through the whole set, despite the sweat pouring down her neck. The smile might be Concepcion’s doing, too: He is fit, handsome and tanned, with a rich Puerto Rican accent. And he is completely hers for one hour.

Once a PE teacher at Waikiki Elementary, Concepcion started training at StorSecure about nine months ago, expanding from a home-based business.

He looked at spaces in shopping malls first. “When I saw the prices I was thinking: ‘Oh, my God, how ever am I going to make this up?’ So I started looking for other places to do business from,” he says.

Storage is a natural fit for personal training, offering privacy.

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Honolulu Magazine July 2020
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