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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.

Victoria Wiseman, Photography by Olivier Koning

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.


* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.”

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

Alan Jale, inside Al’s Toy Box, a collectibles shop he runs out of StorKeeper.

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.

* * * * *

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.”


* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.”

* * * * *

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!”

* * * * *

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.’”


* * * * *

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.


* * * * *

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.