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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Storage can be an incubator for small businesses. Some facilities—locally owned, especially—have begun marketing their units as cheap office space, hooking up selected containers with electricity and the Internet, and offering conference rooms, post-office boxes and fax machines. At StorSecure in Honolulu, which is tucked on a side street behind the convention center, there are 20 units set up for business. “I’m surprised how many businesses are in here,” says Keola Ulu, a manager at the location, “especially because of our obscure location.”
But running a business in storage isn’t for everybody. “These are businesses that don’t rely on foot traffic,” Ulu says.
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Turns out, you don’t need an office to be a tour operator, just a place to park your bus. Humvee-driving, Lost enthusiast Ed Kos rents a double-wide storage space from which he runs Kos Tours, a movie and TV-location tour company. He parks his fleet of Humvees outside, which are picked up each day by his tour guide-drivers. Since only one or two groups can fit in one car, they do hotel pick-ups, eliminating the need for an office in Waikiki.
Kos is a burly guy, with a T-shirt emblazoned with “Got Lost?” on the front. His storage-office consists of a desk, a conference table, and some Lost props, like a few bottles of Dharma Initiative beer.
Like many small businesses, he started from his home with a few Humvees and a bus. “We expanded faster than the neighbors liked, so we moved here.”
Now it’s a five-man business, with pretty low overhead. “All I need is Internet and phone.” And if someone seems worried by his lack of physical location? “I tell them to look me up on Trip Advisor or the Better Business Bureau.”
Kos has been used as a source in Lost tour books and is proud of his place in the business. “You can’t fake it. I can train a guy to drive a Hummer off-road but I can’t teach them to be a Lost fan.” Business is thriving. “In summer, I have to turn people away.”
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Plastic-shrouded wedding dresses crinkle as Bill Young pushes to the back of his unit. His is a simple setup: a rug, a chair, a light, one desk and the dresses.
An ESL teacher by day, Young bought the dresses, and rented storage, four months ago. He sells his wedding gowns by appointment only, through ads on Craigslist. The math, for him, is simple: “I have to sell three dresses a month to break even.”
The brides look through the dresses, select the ones they’d like to try, and then Young rolls down the storage door and stands outside while they dress. Since he can’t be in the room while the ladies change—bravo for decorum—he makes sure his customers bring someone with them.
How do they tell him when they’re done? “They can either roll it up or knock on the door and say, ‘I’m done,’” Young says.
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Alan Jale is a businesslike, quiet man, not prone to the fits of excitement one might expect from someone who collects hundreds of tiny toys. “I started out as a collector myself—baseball cards and comics—then I went into things like Hot Wheels,” he says, as he rips the headliner out of an old Honda Civic in the parking lot of StorKeeper self-storage. He has two businesses here: an upholstery repair shop, next to the loading dock, and Al’s Toy Box, a collectibles store visible from the lobby.
He stops working on the car to carefully recount one of his best finds, “the redline series of Hot Wheels. They have different paint jobs on them, custom. I found a Volkswagen Beach Bomb in purple metallic, sold it for $200.”
His upholstery shop is packed with bolts of fabric, boxes, a microwave for lunches and his industrial sewing machine. His regular customers are car dealers, restaurants and car rental companies, a group he’s kept since the days when he ran a traditional storefront.
“When the economy turned, I had to let guys go and I got rid of the regular shop,” he says. Business is now good, and eventually he’d like to rent the unit next to him to expand. The managers at StorKeeper don’t usually have a problem knocking down a wall, so long as it can be rebuilt when the unit is vacated.
A few rows away, his toy shop is equally packed, but this unit’s like a miniature storefront, with a glass counter displaying his Star Wars figurines and Transformers. Above it are and pegboards hung with boxes and boxes of Hot Wheels toys.
The store is neat, orderly and there is a lot of time stacked next to those plastic-encased cars. But Jale is winding down this business, considering selling off his whole stock. “You have to have space to collect, which was fine when I was single. When I got married it was a different story,” he says, laughing.
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A balding, middle-aged man is sitting in a chair, reading a newspaper in a unit at StorKeeper in Honolulu. The unit is bare, save for a few books on the floor and two shirts draped on hangers. He introduces himself as Jacob; this is his brother’s unit. He says he’s just come to town for the day from Wahiawa and is using the unit to change clothes. Why a person might need to change clothes for a day trip is not explained. He isn’t forthcoming about why he’s in the storage unit, why he is in town, anything. Manager Keola Ulu also seems uncomfortable. When a safe distance from the man has been bridged, Ulu explains a few rules, not mentioned until now. “We discourage people from spending too much time at their units. They can’t loiter, or take a nap, and we really don’t want them changing or closing the unit up while they’re inside.”
These are the rules for the homeless, storage’s most faithful clientele. “Everybody needs a place,” says Sharon May, of Extra Space in Kapolei. “And they have just as much right to a clean spot as everyone else. I guess they’ve already lost everything, so they don’t want to lose it again. They’re good customers and mostly pay on time.”