This might speak to both our materialism and our transience. Whether from adventure or pragmatism, the average American moves 11 times in his or her life. In the 1920s and 30s, Milo Bekins, the son of a Dutch immigrant living in Sioux City, Iowa, built the country’s first storage facilities in a rapidly-expanding Los Angeles; the Los Angeles Times remembered him as a man who believed that “moving is the American way.”
Before renting a unit of my own, I’d thought of storage facilities as an American no man’s land, a space where the laws of decency and society didn’t apply. The news offers plenty of dark storage lore: In 2015, for example, a woman in Merritt Island, Florida, was charged with animal cruelty for keeping 23 cats in a small unit. When the unit of Michael Berkland, a former Pensacola associate medical examiner, came up for auction in 2012, the unit’s new owner discovered the body parts of around a hundred autopsy subjects preserved in formaldehyde. And the 2015 documentary Finders Keepers chronicles the legal fight between John Wood, a North Carolina amputee who’d misplaced his embalmed leg in a defaulted storage unit, and Shannon Whisnant, who acquired the leg at storage auction.
Finishing grad school and stunned by betrayal and divorce, I still had no plan for my own future, no job, no place to live. The Lock-Up seemed like the answer to all my problems. For $118 a month, I could lock away the messy overflow of my life behind aluminum track doors. In the storage industry, professionals refer to the changes and crises that fuel their business as the four Ds—dislocation, downsizing, divorce, and death. But it isn’t crisis, exactly, that pumps blood through the veins of the storage industry; instead, it’s our stubborn belief that we can defy that change. We refuse to let go of our possessions, even as our lives propel us away from them.
The longer I paid the bills on it, the less sense my storage unit seemed to make. Eventually, I settled into a new apartment in a different state, and none of the things I was storing proved necessary. I didn’t know if I even wanted them: pots my husband and I had cooked meals in, wedding gifts, prints we had picked and framed for our walls. In part, I was acting out the dubious impulses of many divorcees, evening the score on emotional betrayal by keeping the stuff. Our stuff and our hearts are hard to separate. I fantasized about defaulting on the unit’s lease, sending all physical evidence of my married life to the auction. But instead, I kept the unit more than a year. According to Ryan Burke, a real-estate analyst, I’m not alone. Many storing Americans keep their units—and the stuff within them—for longer than they had planned.
On A & E’s reality show Storage Wars, the veterans sometimes caution against bidding high on units where people have packed their property as I did, meticulously, in boxes labeled “Fragile,” “This Side Up,” “Handle With Care.” The auction veterans have learned that property owners stink at valuing our own belongings. The things we care for emotionally often have the least external value. The real treasures—rare coins, paintings, crystal—remain unmarked.