The second that Gary Reuter yanks up the green sliding metal door of a self-storage unit, the pack of hunters turns on its dozen flashlights.
There are 11 men and one woman, all around retirement age. Most wear canvas jackets or windbreakers, their heads topped with wool caps or wide-brimmed felt Western hats. They hold their industrial Black & Decker LED-beam flashlights over their heads and lean into the dark locker, like spelunkers peering into a cave. They bend to the left and right, moving around each other for a better view, taking care not to step over the concrete threshold of the doorway.
They stay outside the door because, at 9:45 am on this Tuesday in November, the contents of Extra Space Storage unit F27 in Hillsboro still belong to Tia Holland.
Reuter begins the spiel he will recite at each of the 15 lockers he will open this morning.
"Strictly cash only," he begins. "You've got to have the money right here and now. You've got to leave personal items: photos, tax records, yearbooks, Bibles. Everything is sold as is, where is, how is. You've got 24 hours to clean it out. You must have your own lock. If you do not have a lock, you can buy one from me for $20."
Having your own lock is important. Because in five minutes, this storage unit will no longer belong to Holland. It will belong to the highest bidder from the hunters, even if that bid is only $1.
The belongings of Holland and her late husband, Douglas, are neatly arranged. There are chests of drawers, lamps and gray metal filing cabinets with hand-written labels. One of them reads, "'94 X-Mas Cards." A nearby box is labeled, "Tia's teaching supplies." The box underneath it reads, "Douglas' plastic ties."
"It's funny, isn't it?" observes one potential buyer before the 30-by-10-foot unit goes for $600. "What some people think is important to save."
In the past 30 years, Portland and its exurbs have become dotted with self-storage units, an industry that has exploded because of the increasing number of people who have too many things to save, or no place to save them. Unintentionally, this industry has created another: a subculture of auctioneers, antique dealers, hobbyists, pensioners and contracted buyers, ready to pounce if a renter is three months late on his storage-unit payments.
Whether it's valuables or just plain crap, Americans display a rare connection to their stuff—as if it provided them a sense of identity. "People don't want to give up their junk," says Jeri Schultz, who manages an Extra Space Storage center incongruously located across the landscaped street from the swank Murrayhill Marketplace in Beaverton. "They'll give up their houses, they won't pay their rent, but they want to hang on to their stuff." Until they can't.
Photos by Darryl James
Oregon lien law lets storage facilities sell a unit's contents. Thirty days after a public notice (usually published in clumps of as many as 300 in The Oregonian), and after storage operators have made several warning phone calls and changed the unit's locks, the facilities hold an auction.
In about seven out of 10 notifications, the owner comes in to make good on the debt. When that doesn't happen, in come the scavengers.
There are probably 75 of them hunting full-time in the Portland metro area. And on weekday mornings they race in their sedans and pickup trucks from one storage facility to another on "runs," bidding on the available units at a facility on Division Street in Gresham, then hauling ass to the next stop on Burnside.
They are quietly competitive—refusing to say what they think of a promising locker before the bidding ends—and protective of their own. They don't like outsiders. They call dilettantes who come in looking for a quick buck "newbies," and they don't want them snooping around.
And "newbie" is just part of their lingo. They're suspicious of "cat units"—lockers formerly occupied by felines—and assiduously avoid "tweaker units": They don't want to deal with the meth pipes and heroin needles. They work a circuit where the word "quality" is bandied about so often that it's only used sarcastically: "This is quality garbage."
Over a year, they buy as many as 4,000 units in Oregon, in the estimate of one hunter.
In the economic meltdown, reams have been written about foreclosures, estate auctions, and the speculators who use others' misfortune as an opportunity to buy low.
But this shadow economy of capitalizing on somebody else's nightmare is old news for storage-locker hunters, who for decades have made livings—or at least supplemented their Social Security—by waiting for others to miss their payments.
You might think the storage-unit seekers would be on the verge of a windfall, since self-storage operators say they're seeing more and more renters behind on their monthly payments. (It's no boon to the operators, who say they usually lose money on the sales.)
"I've been doing this for 15 years," says Schultz. "And I've never seen more units defaulted than I've seen in the last six months."
But the few people willing to talk about this world say the cratering economy is having a mixed effect so far: More people are defaulting on their units, but they're leaving behind less valuable possessions, and the markets for resale are drying up. "I've seen [recession] work both ways," Reuter says.
What is definitely true is that many of us are now forced into sniffing out secondhand bargains, and there is no group who has more experience than these hunters.
"It's like Christmas shopping every day," enthuses Reuter. "I've found money, I've found Rolexes, I've found diamonds."
His wife, Dixie, interjects a more sobering inventory: "You've found dead fish, you've found garbage."
Gary Reuter works as both a storage-auction buyer for his auction house in Vancouver and as a licensed auctioneer. A stout 60-year-old with a thick white mustache-goatee combo that makes him resemble a cartoon walrus, Reuter is at the center of any auction he attends—always leading the trudging parade of hunters down the long paved alleys from unit to unit, either as the day's certified dealbroker or as the alpha dog in a back-slapping, bullshitting pack.
They arrive at the first storage center of the day as early as 7 am, carrying rolls of cash in their pockets. They've scanned The Oregonian, the Hillsboro Argus and the Gresham Outlook, where public notices of auctions are carried in long classified boxes—the name of each debtor listed. They stand in bunches outside the electronic gates of the facilities: waiting to sign in at the front desk, waiting for the auctioneer to arrive. (The auctioneer is nearly always late. He's fielding calls from people trying to save their units.)
At each stop, the packs are the same.
There are some obvious newbies in their 30s. They smoke cigarettes at every opportunity. They look on the edge of poverty—no-return poverty. One woman is missing teeth.
The second group is couples: husbands and wives, a mother and daughter. Their demeanor suggests they're still getting used to the hunt. They'll trade stories with whoever walks up, looking for angles on new markets: "So, what are you sitting on, about three units? You selling mostly on eBay? Nobody's buying. It's real tight." They complain that they need coffee.
Then there is the pack distinguished by not being a pack. They are men of retirement age, dressed in the jeans and ballcaps of construction foremen. They stand alone, or they walk around the side of the facility's office to talk out of earshot.
They share stories as well, but only with each other. These stories aren't told in hopes of wheedling information; they're pure barking-laughter bluster. ("I'm a very competitive person," says Reuter. "I'll talk junk about units.") One man motions his buddy to the back of his blue pickup truck, and unwraps a pair of rifles he found in the back of a locker he bought last week.
These men bring their own coffee thermoses.
Reuter knows all the regulars: the guy who owns the grocery store, the independently wealthy old coot who cusses like a sailor and doesn't want women or children at auctions, the silent man called "Dick" who bears an unnerving resemblance to Dick Cheney.
"I don't know if I can really say their names," he demurs. "They might come unglued. We kind of look out for one another. There's some rich people in this business that don't need to be in this business. But some people are greedy."
Cassandra Todd is on the other side of the equation.
The 24-year-old Gladstone woman just wanted to keep her father's model train sets.
Todd had been laid off earlier this year from her $200-a-week job as an intersection flagger, and the bills kept piling up. She wasn't surprised when a Public Storage manager in Milwaukie called to say her 10-by-10-foot storage unit would be resold Nov. 25 if she didn't make good on nearly $400 in bills.
"I was probably on the list, but…they were very helpful about it," she says. "It was 'cause I couldn't afford anything."
Inside Todd's unit were her late father Christopher's trains, clocks and photos, as well as photos of her son's first five birthdays.
"That was pretty much all I was worried about," she says. "That and my boyfriend's stuff."
Todd's possessions never made it to the hunters. Her brother Michael returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and paid her bills. She's still looking for a job.
On Nov. 21, Public Storage—the nation's largest storage-unit company—hosts sales at six locations in Gresham. For two weeks, word has been spreading that this run will begin with the 8 am auction of a 1987 Chevrolet Corvette belonging to Wayne Hernandez. In this world, that's like hearing the office cafeteria is grilling one porterhouse steak.
But when the hunters arrive at the location on Northeast Hogan Road—where the sign outside advertises, "First Month's Rent $1"—the car is off the market. Between the notice and the sale, Hernandez paid his unit's bills.
Throughout the morning, the hunters grumble. "I really wanted to buy that goddamn Corvette," one man says. "They never sell anything worth anything," says another. "You'll learn that after 10 years."
But as the hunters scuttle down claustrophobic metal hallways (think archaeologists in an Indiana Jones movie whose quarry happens to be illuminated by fluorescent overhead lighting), few linger to watch each unit's bidding to the finish. They've already moved on to wait outside the closed door of the next unit, flashlights ready, as if drawn less by what's behind the door than by the thrill of not knowing.
"I don't think actually finding anything of value is as important as the challenge," says Daniel L. Kasch, a four-year veteran of the hunt. "Every one of the guys that are out there doing it is smitten with entrepreneurial spirit."
The allure is in the possibility. Because the units are sealed until auction, and the property inside is unavailable for inspection even after it's unveiled, nobody knows the value of any prize until after the bidding is over.
Three hours later that same day at the Public Storage facility on 2600 NW Burnside Court, there's a rumor circulating about "quads"—4-by-4 all-terrain vehicles—in a unit.
The group reaches unit B018. The black-jacketed auctioneer, an employee of Public Storage, rolls up the door, and it's true: There, among the usual bookshelves and boxes, are two white Yamaha ATVs. There are also two motor scooters and, somehow touchingly, a five-gallon gas can.
Usually when a door is opened, the hunters exclaim loudly and sarcastically about the contents, urging each other to bid extravagantly for trash. ("Who wants a trip to the dump?" the auctioneer had cheered earlier in the day. "Somebody put their entire life in there!") But when the ATVs are revealed, everyone stops talking. They just look.
Before anyone speaks, the auctioneer announces: "If you're not paying $2,000, move on to the next one." The bidding winds down to two men.
The two bidders are hardly moving at all. One of them, a short man with a grizzled white beard and a hunting cap, is standing at the frame of the locker, staring at the Yamahas. The other one—taller, younger, in a brown leather jacket—a man who has already proven his willingness to bid high today, stands farther back, looking squarely at the auctioneer. The price goes to $2,500, then $3,000.
At that moment, it becomes clear what a storage auction is: It's a game of poker, usually small stakes but with no limit, except the players are betting on cards they've never seen, belonging to people they've never met.
And then it's over. The unit has sold for $4,500. The tall man swoops in and pulls the metal door shut. He won't look at his catch until everyone has gone.
Gary Reuter stands to the side of the building, looking amused. "Better hope it runs," he says. "If it doesn't run, he just lost a lot of money."
"A lot of it's intimidation," Reuter says later over lunch at Denny's. "You're trying to read him: What's his limit, how much is he willing to spend? He goes real quiet, or he starts moving his feet in a certain way, and you know he's going to buy."
In a good year, deals like this could mean somebody will turn a profit of $20,000. In a bad one, $1,000. But for most it's a $500-a-month second job that lets them go exploring.
"The thing that keeps most people coming back week after week, month after month, is the anticipation of finding a treasure," says Kasch. "If you find a unit full of Snap-on Tools, that's like finding a license to print money."
A general contractor in Gresham—"Handy Man," his business card reads—Kasch is 61 years old and wiry, with a shaved head and a stud in his left ear. He jumped into storage auctions about four years back and started banking on patterns.
"You can look at the units and see the packing material and know what kind of stuff you're going to find," he says. "If some planning went into the move, that's a good sign. Smell is always an important factor: If there's a really strong smell of cigarettes or urine or cat, it's probably going to get less at auction."
Kasch sells about half of what he buys to the Salvation Army and Goodwill. The better clothing he presents to Buffalo Exchange, Red Light and Naked City. "You walk in with an armload of clothes," he says, "and walk out with $30, $40." Valuables like jewelry, china and furniture usually wind up on eBay. (He was once paid $1,300 to drive an antique school desk to an online collector living on Puget Sound: "Money was not her issue.") The rest of his buys—about a quarter of a unit's contents—he takes to the dump.
"Nobody's getting rich out there doing this," Kasch says. "There's a certain amount of just plain bullshitters who pretend to be making a fortune while still driving beat-up trucks that break down on the way to the next sale. But there's always the stories."
Like the 1909 Bristol automobile somebody bought for $2,500 and sold for $11,500. Or the Harley-Davidson with the gas tank signed by Elvis Presley. And a drug dealer who used a storage locker on Northwest Burnside Court in Gresham—a location known among the hunters as "Crack Alley"—to squirrel away piles of cash.
Nobody knows whether the big legends—of coin collections, Civil War weaponry—have any basis in fact. Easier to confirm are the crappy things people find.
Gary Reuter found a 15-pound dead salmon. ("That'll make you quit right there," Reuter says.) He found a five-gallon bucket filled with feces. He has found several urns containing ashes. One of his closest associates found a cardboard box of hypodermic needles. Kasch found plastic bags stuffed with cigarette butts. He found 200 used Halloween masks. He found a unit of artificial Christmas trees, all with decorations.
Once, Kasch even found an escort service. It was two years ago, in a Public Storage unit on Southeast Powell Boulevard. "A dozen different overnight bags," he recalls, "each filled with rubber gloves and condoms." And costumes. "There was the nurse's outfit and the little black leather outfit, and a schoolgirl outfit. It was all set up, ready to go."
But more commonly, the hunters find drugs. (Meth, mostly.) They don't usually bother alerting the cops—unless they stumble across an item that rattles even them. "I know guys who have talked about finding stuff like child porn," says Kasch. "And for something like that, they generally call the police."
Meanwhile, the hunters find soiled clothes and used mattresses. They find vacuum cleaners, microwaves and tape measures. (Even the escort-service unit had a tape measure.) And they find an assload of pornography.
"Almost every unit has some kind of porn in it," says Kasch, "whether it's magazines or DVDs or toys. You can't sell that stuff. But they make nice stocking-stuffers."
For all their gallows humor, the hunters all confess they are affected by the stories the units tell.
"My wife refuses to look at the photographs anymore," says Kasch. "Once they begin doing drugs—heroin, meth—the quality of the pictures changes. You see the photos of the kids with broken arms, or the ex-wife with a bruised face. There's almost a progression."
Saving personal documents and photos from sale is not a legal requirement in Oregon, as in Washington. Some storage facilities don't bother reserving items of sentimental value. (One locker hunter, who asked not to be identified, says, "I've literally taken to the dump apple boxes of photos that go back four or five generations.") But companies like Extra Space Storage and Public Storage make leaving photos and records part of the auction agreement.
The business code is never to reveal who bought what unit, or to put the original owner in touch with a buyer. Reuter regularly gets calls as an auctioneer from people hoping to buy their stuff back from the new owner—"99 percent of them, they won't sell it back, because they don't want to get involved. People could follow you, burn your house down. You don't know what they could do."
Reuter says seeing the evidence of busted lives hasn't gotten any easier after three years of auctioning off the debris.
"Sometimes there can really be problems, if the people who own the unit show up [at auction] and they start crying," he says. "It can be a mess.
"It is a real sad situation," he adds, pausing from his cheeseburger in the middle of an interview at Denny's. "I feel sorry for these people, you know? You see kids' stuff, and you think of your own kids. You really don't know these people's circumstances, you don't know what happened: Did they lose their job? Did someone get sick? Did someone die? Did someone go to jail? So every time you see one of these things, you're thinking to yourself, wow, what happened to this person?"
Reuter returns to his lunch, and more stories: stories of discovered motorcycles and abandoned boats. Along with their descriptions of adventuring and custodial work, the hunters say they see themselves as reluctant anthropologists. Because the catch is that, for every treasure, there's a story of people so attached to their stuff that they took it to the last place they could find, only to see it disappear for good.
Back at the Extra Space auction in Hillsboro, another 30-by-10-foot space is auctioned after Tia Holland's unit went for $600. It is strewn with plastic bags spilling over with stained children's clothing. Two plastic rocking horses teeter on their sides; a princess tiara lies on the concrete.
"How sad is this?" says the one woman among the hunters. "They actually live like this."
"Look on the bright side," cracks the man standing next to her. "They don't have this stuff anymore."
Oregon storage lien laws are compatible with "the basic way that these statutes are written in every state," says D. Carlos Caslow, editor of
Monthly rates at an Extra Space Storage center in Beaverton range from $59 for a 5-by-5-foot unit to $345 for a 12-by-30-foot unit.
Hunters enjoy telling the story of one newbie—they think he might have been a reporter—who brought a camera to a storage-unit facility a couple years back. He made it out the front gate in one piece. His camera did not.
If buyers don't clean out lockers they've purchased within 24 hours (or 48 hours for unusually cluttered units), they owe the storage facility the next month's rent.
Both socialite Paris Hilton and disgraced NFL quarterback Michael Vick have had their storage units auctioned. Hilton's videos and diaries sold for $2,775 in Los Angeles. Vick's unit in Virginia—containing a football he signed to his son—sold for $10.
Jeri Schultz says only 1 percent of the 650 units at Extra Space Storage in Beaverton have delinquent payments. But locations he oversees in Hillsboro are up to 5 percent, he adds. In years past, that rate has hovered around 2 percent.
Real-estate mogul Joe Weston, who owns 6,800 storage units in the metro area, told The Oregonian in October that he's seeing more delinquent payments at his facilities.
Until earlier this year, the industry magazine Inside Self-Storage ran a "Watchdog" column monitoring coverage of its business. The column included unflattering newspaper accounts like "Operators Consider Auctions Unfortunate" and "Mummified Baby Found in Storage."