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 auctions offer the thrill of discovery, and sometimes big money.

Steven Ortiz peels 11 fresh $100 bills from a stack in his pocket and places them on the counter. He’s just won a huge unit, up for auction at The Lockup in Honolulu, and is ready for the real work—getting all the stuff out of there, pronto.

Two of the other regulars, McShane and Bruce Spencer—he’s holding the characteristic giant flashlight—are waiting around to help Ortiz sort through his haul. Ortiz is a storage auction kupuna, and McShane and Spencer help him out of respect and because they know he will be generous with them in return. “He’s like the king, and we get the scraps from his table,” says McShane.

“I saw [Ortiz] at my first auction and started trying to get close to him. I wanted to learn from him,” he says.  “He paid $1,700 for a locker and made $10,000.  It was stuff like towels, sheets and clothes—still with tags on.”

Every time McShane saw Ortiz win a storage locker, he’d offer to help him carry boxes to his car. At first, Ortiz ignored him. But, after a year, McShane’s persistence paid off. “He taught me everything I know about this business.”

Ortiz laughs and seems pleased by the deference, as he sits heavily in a chair, waiting for Spencer to pull his van around. “I don’t know what I taught them, because they still ain’t doing good,” he jokes in a gravelly voice.

Ortiz says he’s semiretired from the business, but he remains a huge presence, physically and in the bidding wars.

Ortiz bought this unit because it was big, and there were promising signs, such as furniture, along with the boxes and bags. But as he starts looking through it, it’s obvious he’s not impressed. “There ain’t much I’m gonna take, I’ll tell you that right now. It’s going home with these guys,” he jabs a finger at McShane and Spencer. He wanders around, slowly making a tiny pile of what he wants.

The other two are moving fast, sorting through boxes, showing Ortiz anything that looks vaguely valuable. Spencer hands him a watch, which Ortiz turns over and says: “Japan. It’s junk.” That’s Spencer’s signal to load the watch onto his own pile, if he wants it.

Spencer pulls out a brand-new weed whacker, still in its box, from the back of the unit. It’s the find of the day, and Ortiz seems pleased.  It goes into his pile.

“It’s like going to Vegas. You win, you lose. If you can’t stand losing money, you might as well quit.” But he’s made his money back on this unit, so far as he can tell, so today was a good day for gambling.

As the three men laugh, talk story and trade insults about each others’ balding heads, they’re sorting through someone’s life, and determining a value for each item. Much of it is destined for the trash.

It’s jarring, how fast it all goes, how unimportant these assembled items seem. These are things that used to mean something; they were once part of someone’s life.

“Going through a locker you get insight into people. Are they rich or poor? Are they divorced?” Spencer says. “We don’t give people back their personal stuff, usually. You think you’re doing something good but they just wind up getting mad at you for it.”

This locker is a mystery: There are King Kong action figures, a fake Louis Vuitton suitcase and a checkbook from the Bank of Saipan. Then, there are the children’s drawings and the divorce papers. Maybe it’s just that simple—someone’s life, as they knew it, had ended.

Destined for swap meets and yard sales, these abandoned artifacts of one life will be traded off, and given new meaning, and new life, in someone else’s story.

Victoria Wiseman had a storage unit in college, but alas, it contained only a torch lamp, concert posters and a loveseat, not a handsome personal trainer.


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Honolulu Magazine November 2018
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