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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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Rebuilding bikes helps Brian Werle have a sense of purpose.

Brian Werle has converted his storage space into a shrine to his life’s obsession: bikes. There are about 30 rims in baskets, and bolts, chains, seats and inner tubes are stacked and piled in boxes and on jury-rigged carts.

Besides bike parts, all he has is a small work table and a stool, where he sits, lining up a set of cranks he just stripped from a bike. “I found five bikes this week, just abandoned,” he says.

He pulls out a small hook scale from the corner, hanging the crank from its end. He likes to take steel parts off the bikes and replace them with aluminum. “Three-quarters of a pound in weight was saved with this new crank.”

Since 2008, Werle has run an impromptu bike shop, refurbishing bikes off the street for the homeless and the poor, estimating he’s made about 400 bikes. Homeless and a recovering addict himself, he gives the bikes away to friends and by word-of-mouth referral to those in need.

“When I find bike parts, they’re dead. I give them new life. I don’t know what else to do. I made some bad decisions, and this is me trying to give back.”

Today he has two bikes in the hallway and is working on a third, painted over in black. Black is the hallmark of a stolen bike, and Werle has scraped away the paint to reveal the bike’s make and model. He spends hours and hours inside his unit, slowly scraping, easing bolts free, working. “They have to kick me out every night,” he says.

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Just get your things and go.

When things go bad, people’s things go to storage. Sometimes, it’s the first stop.

“You get the ladies that come in here crying. They don’t know what they should be doing,” says Sharon May, manager of Extra Space Storage in Kapolei.

“There was one lady, she came home, found out her husband was fooling around—she walked in on something—and then that was it. She threw her stuff in the car and started calling around to find where she could go with it. People don’t mind showing up at a relative’s door, but they don’t want to show up with all their stuff.”

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Family law attorney Pablo Quiban has found clients to be receptive to his new location inside a storage unit.

Divorce is what family law attorney Pablo Quiban does, and he does it right out of a Kapolei storage unit.

“I use my cellphone. I have my photocopier and desk, bookshelves with my Hawaii Revised Statutes and the Hawaii Digest, and some of my manuals.”

When family court moved to Kapolei, Quiban found office space for dentists and doctors, but not lawyers. StorSecure advertised units for small businesses, so Quiban decided to try it, just for a month. That was last October.

“For the first 20 years of my law practice I was driving to town every day from Mililani,” he said. With the new place convenient to court and home, and business still humming, Quiban has decided he’s not going anywhere.

“I’m looking to practice for, at the most, another 10 years.  The price is right and so long as the cases keep on coming, I’ll stay here.”

His clients seem unbothered by his stripped-down location. “They’ve been receptive to it. There’s free parking—downtown it’s ridiculous—and it’s just a matter of giving people the right directions. I say just look for the Burger King and hang a left!”

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There’s no one reason, but more often than you’d imagine, stuff in storage is forgotten. These abandoned lockers, if they’re not paid for or emptied out, are sold at auction.

In Kapolei, there is a five-by-five storage locker that’s constantly on the verge of being lost to its owner. It contains the life’s work of a college professor from India. Halfway around the world, he’s still teaching, without his most prized possessions.

Most months, he goes delinquent, but is brought back from the brink with a last-minute payment and frantic, pleading emails to Extra Space’s Sharon May. “I’ve never met him in my life. I’m interested to find out what he’s keeping in there; he’s spent so much money on this unit and there’s just boxes in there. He says to me, ‘It’s my life’s work in there. If you sell it, it will mean nothing to someone else, but it means everything to me.’”

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Honolulu Magazine August 2019
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