NPR’s ‘This American Life’ program sifts through self-storage ‘crapstack’

January 27, 2014 2
NPR’s ‘This American Life’ program sifts through self-storage ‘crapstack’“This American Life” host Ira Glass

For a more realistic look into the world of storage auctions than the ones seen on TV, tune into a recent segment produced by NPR’s “This American Life.” The story examines the grittier and less-than-glamorous lives of a group of regular storage bidders in Northern California.

From the segment, called “Needle in a Crapstack”:

They crane their necks, contort their bodies or step up on little folding stools they brought for a better look into the nooks and corners.

“You got to get all up in there like a proctologist,” one guy explains.

The reporter described the crowd as regular bidders who earn a modest income selling the contents of other people’s storage units on and at flea markets. Some have niches, like antiques or military items. Sometimes they get lucky, like the two hippies who bought a unit for $225 that held a stash of silver coins, or the guy who bought Paris Hilton’s storage unit in 2007. But a lot of the time, they end up with a bunch of, well, crap.

According to a bidder identified only as Christine, all you find is porn, mildewed clothes and dead rats.

The bidders shared various strategies for buying a good unit:

  • Look for cobwebs. That’s a sign that the storage unit owner hasn’t been there to retrieve any valuable items before the auction.
  • Units that have neatly stacked boxes and brand-name items are a good sign. (Except for the guy who paid more than $500 for a unit full of boxes marked “Crystal.” Turns out it was a bunch of junk that belonged to someone named Crystal.)
  • Only bid on what’s visible, not on what you think might be inside boxes. A plasma TV box is pretty much guaranteed not to contain a plasma TV.

The NPR story ends with an auction for a storage unit that’s filled to the brim with stuff—so much that it comes spilling out when the unit is opened. The bidders speculated about what might be hidden in there.

“There could be motorcycles or jet skis, or a car. Or it could be nothing. We could have flushed $425 down the toilet,” the winning bidder said.

Check out the NPR story to find out what was found. It’s worth a listen.

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  • storage manager

    I listened to this program last weekend. It was excellent. It’s a shame programs like Storage Wars continues to perpetuate the myth that people put fantastically valuable items in what is essentially a garage and leave them there unattended.

    We have had a couple of decent units that went for cheap here but nothing spectacular and the stories behind them are often terribly sad… not Paris Hilton getting rid of her excess junk by dumping it and not bothering to pay her bills. 99% of the time when we open a unit, there’s only broken bits of cheap, filthy furniture and bags and boxes and clothing and toys strewn about. We had one that was nothing but bags and bags and bags of old clothes, floor to ceiling. The buyer went through every bit of it but said it wasn’t even fit for goodwill and tossed it. We had one very nice unit of stuff from a woman who had been a successful businesswoman until she somehow blundered down the road of crack and meth and ended up homeless. Luckily our regular buyers are GREAT guys and they saved everything that looked personal like baby shoes, photos, high school year books and brought us back 7 boxes of items for her. The best buy we’ve seen was a unit that had a motorcycle in it that was in pieces and a LOT of nice and expensive tools. The former owner is in jail. The weather wasn’t great so we had only 2 bidders and believe it or not, the unit went for $50. Generally speaking, it’s the contents are a sad commentary on a life that is spiraling down. Unemployment, eviction, homelessness, death. We like most of our customers and it saddens us to see them in desperate straights and we really hate it when we lose one of them to death. And it makes us sad to see what their families do after we’ve lost one.

    I watched a couple of episodes of Storage Wars and the sight of them gleefully breaking open what are clearly children’s piggy banks and gloating over the $15 in quarters they found made me sick to my stomach.

    • Dee Dieterich Marsh

      I whole-heartedly agree. Thanks for sharing this info, and maybe if enough of us in the storage world tell it like it really is, the media’s perception will change.