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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The Lockup on Kapiolani, where Steven Ortiz won the contents of a storage unit for $1,100.

“Say it loud, say it proud, you’re here for the auction!”

A group of about 30 people drift from the parking lot through the security gate at Extra Space Storage in Kapolei. The auctioneer, charismatic and loud, lists the rules: Bids must come at minimum $5 increments and must be verbal so he can hear them. It sounds a little amateurish, a set of rules for people who’ve never been to an auction in their lives.

“I think the bids are going to be really ridiculous today,” says Dale McShane, who has bought and sold the contents of storage lockers since 1997–well before the A&E network show Storage Wars made the practice famous. It’s a show that most of this crowd loves; it’s why they’re here. But the regulars here really hate the show. It’s messing with their bottom line.

“All the new people don’t know what they’re doing, so they drive up the price. There’s no sense to buy, because I’m going to lose money. So now I bid on what I see, not what I don’t see,” McShane says. 

The auctioneer leads the group inside and up a flight of stairs to the first unit. It feels like being in the lunch line with an anxious group of schoolkids—everyone is trying to be silent but the whispers and giggles bounce off the metal walls.

The auctioneer opens the padlock and rolls up the door. There are boxes of clothes, plastic organizing bins, papers. It doesn’t look like treasure—it looks like a bunch of junk, not even approaching the offerings of a decent yard sale.

McShane has developed a strategy for locker bidding over the years. The auctions are published in the paper beforehand, and some companies list the last name of the delinquent renter. “Usually the Asian occupants are the better ones. Then, I look to see if the unit is packed well, if people paid money to get nice boxes or if they went to the Foodland and just grabbed the vegetable boxes.”

He looks inside, and whispers: “See all these clothes everywhere? It means it’s kind of a low-quality locker. I look for designer bags, quality stuff like golf clubs, and furniture.” But if there’s a box for a flat-screen TV, or an iPod box, it’s guaranteed to not have anything valuable in it. His rules go on, like a mini lesson in human psychology applied to stuff.

People file by the open locker, in groups of about three. They’re only allowed to look from outside, no going in. Some carry flashlights to see in the back corners, searching for tip-offs.

The auctioneer rolls the door down, and the blind auction seems to heighten the thrill of bidding on contents unknown.

The first bid is $25, and goes up by tiny increments, endlessly, with so many bidders it’s hard to imagine the field will ever narrow down to two. At $150 the unit is almost sold, until a woman, bidding with a baby on her hip, yells, “I bid $160!”

At $235, the auctioneer loses patience. “We gotta speed it up a little bit folks. Okay, $235, going once, going twice …” Someone bids $250. “Okay, $250. Going once, going twice, sold.”

The third unit for auction is full of porn and things like a Bud Light fluorescent sign. “Look at the way the guy has everything packed high,” says McShane. “Looks like a mess. Because it’s really packed, it’s going to be a ridiculous price.”

Looking closer, McShane points out bikes and tools and a big ladder hanging from the ceiling. “It’s kind of a touch-and-go locker. It’s big and full but it’s iffy. I don’t like the fact that I see a lot of bike rims in there; guy looks like he could have been a drug addict. Who would pile something like that? A guy who’s out there.” (Despite what the many bike parts suggest, this is not bike-repair guy Werle’s unit.)

For the first time today, McShane bids, once the price goes to about $500, but not aggressively. A woman bids $625. McShane bids $675. Another bids $700, and he lets the locker go.  “I wasn’t going to let him have it cheap,” he says, with a smile.

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,May

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