Even though we live in larger houses with fewer people, me and 10 million fellow Americans can't resist the urge to buy storage space.
Putting the past to rest in peace for $200 a month
I knew I was in trouble when I got the call.
"Could you come down here, to the office?" the man asked. "We need to take another imprint of your credit card."
For years - maybe a decade - I've rented a small storage space a kilometre or two from my house. Everything I don't need but can't part with - old manuscripts, financial records, a couple of sofas, a large collection of vinyl records - got tossed into the back of the car, driven to the storage facility, and stacked tightly in a small square of windowless concrete. I'd shove it all in, drag down the rolling metal door, and secure it all with a padlock. The privilege of storing a lot of meaningless junk in an inaccessible place didn't come cheap. I was billed, monthly, on my credit card, about $200 a month.
I know, I know. And I agree with you: I'm a fool.
On an intellectual level, of course, I know that every single item in that storage cell is utterly valueless, to me or anyone. And I'm aware that federal tax regulations only require paper receipts for the past three years; that my entire music collection now fits snugly on a hard drive the size of a paperback book; that the posters and prints I enjoyed in college, 20 years ago, are so yellowed and frayed that unrolling them would turn them into dust; that, finally, I no longer need the futon because I'm in my 40s, and my friends are in their 40s, and futons are incompatible with 40-year-old backs and necks.
But for some reason, my default behaviour was: send it to storage.
I'm not alone. The self-storage industry in America is booming. One in 10 American families, according to a recent survey, rent some kind of extra storage space. Odd statistic that, because for the past 30 years, the average American home has got larger and more spacious while the average American family has been shrinking. Apparently, we've been living in larger houses with fewer people, but we still don't have enough room for our junk.
The appeal of the storage facility is that it allows you to put off making the tough decisions - do I need this Dexy's Midnight Runners record? Am I ever going to ride this stationary bike again? Where did I pick up this ridiculous halogen lamp? - and instead, send everything to the limbo of the storage facility, where it waits in lonely, dusty silence to be useful again, to be remembered and needed.
But nobody needs tax records from 1996, and certainly not for $200 a month, so when the manager of the storage facility called me about my credit card - apparently they needed to photocopy the new version of the card, with the new expiry date, because that's how long I'd been renting from them - a halogen-bright light went off in my head. I knew what I needed to do.
Dump it all.
"So what happens," I asked the manager, "if I just stop paying?"
There was a pause on the other side of the line.
"Well," he said, "then we take possession of what's in there and we auction it off."
I actually knew this. There is, in fact, a reality television show about this very phenomenon - proof that there's a reality television show about everything - and it's a pretty interesting show. Storage facilities like the one I rent from often have renters who simply stop paying. So the contents are auctioned off to a bunch of professional scavengers, who bid on the entire bundle after being given a short, no-touching-allowed glimpse of the concrete box.
It's called "Auction Hunters," and occasionally a lucky bidder will find rare art or gold coins buried in the mound of personal junk, but mostly it's stuff like mine: exercycles and a copy of Come On Eileen.
"You don't want to do that," the manager said. "You don't want strangers pawing through your special things."
"If they were special I wouldn't let them hang out in a small concrete box," I said, but I knew he was right. The proper thing to do is to drive over there, load up the back of the car, and take the stuff to some kind of charity or, failing that, some kind of junk heap. The thing to avoid, of course, is any kind of detour back to the house, where I'll be tempted to sort through the pile, looking for odds and ends to save.
"Do not go shopping through your own junk," a friend of mine warned me when I told him the plan. "My wife does that and it drives me crazy. We still have the charger for a Sonicare toothbrush they haven't made since 2003. Do yourself a favour: take it straight to the dump."
So I've prepared myself for the complete emptying of my storage unit, the de-accessioning of a lifetime's worth of vinyl, bad art, free weights and multi-purpose furniture. It's happening Saturday morning. I've made up my mind.
"Okay," the manager said when I told him I'd be by to empty out my box. "I'll be here."
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood