Behind the Orange Door

The explosion of storage units across city and state means you can now stow away more stuff than ever that you don’t really need — like a dead body.

THE STORAGE FACILITY plopped in the middle of Montgomery County looks like a lifeless catacomb of faux Army barracks, if Army barracks had orange doors. Coasting across the blacktop and speed bumps, we weave past the closet-size five-by-five units and the super-size 10-by-30s, ample enough to stash the Hummer and a few beach chairs.

My girlfriend, Kathleen, and I have rented one of the small ones to store a bed, a dresser, a couple years’ worth of dusty boxes of clothes and pictures, and one rickety wicker bookshelf. There’s no escaping the depressing aura — this is a place where old stuffed animals and clutter-causing bedroom furniture come to die, or in our case hibernate for a couple months. We stop in front of our unit, Number 270, a tiny metal tomb that our beat-up old mattress and shredded box spring will call home for a month, until the lease on our new place starts.

With the cadence of a beat cop reciting a Miranda warning, the manager on duty — a rotund, goblin-looking woman — begins rattling off a list of forbidden activities as she unlocks the door. “You cannot live in your storage unit, you cannot use the storage unit for band rehearsal, you cannot run an illegal business out of your storage unit. … ” She continues on about items that can’t be stored: Chemicals. Food. Pets. People.

People? “Is it really necessary to tell everybody this?” I ask.

Goblin Lady looks up from her clipboard and shakes her head. “You have no idea.”

NO, I DIDN’T. By the time we’ve smushed the last of our stuff into our ugly concrete rental space (about $75 for six weeks), Goblin Lady has told us a virtual storybook of tales of malevolence fit for a storage-unit version of Cops. Evidently, band rehearsals are common. So are people trying to live in their units (no doubt making mail delivery tricky). One woman, caring for her daughter’s two cats, tossed them inside a storage unit after her husband’s allergies flared up. My favorite is the tale of relatives who were waiting to raise enough money for a deceased loved one’s funeral, so they stashed the embalmed corpse inside a unit. Either that, or the one about the madam running a brothel out of hers.

All of which begs the question: Why do we need these places, anyway? In the old days, people either didn’t have more than they needed, or had enough cram space — in the attic, in the basement — to store the out-of-season, the souvenirs, the junk that we accumulate as we live our lives. But over the past 20 years, the pace at which we accumulate said junk and the available space to stash it passed one another, headed in opposite directions. The trade deficit was proof Americans were buying more and more stuff; the flipping of the suburban basement into “the family room” by laying down carpet and hooking up a TV meant a big chunk of “just toss it down there” space was suddenly wiped out from people’s homes. There’s also been the emergence of eBay, which created a platoon of sellers with inventories that have to go somewhere.

Enter the storage unit — savior for the consumerist masses. Today there are 162 listed public storage facilities in Philadelphia, Bucks and Delaware counties; in 1985, the entire state of Pennsylvania had 161. Over the next decade it added 478 more, and then, between 1996 and 2005 — what might be called the boomer years for storage units — another 916 went up. It took 22 years for the storage industry to reach a billion square feet in America. It took seven years after that to notch the next billion. According to the most recent statistics, one in 10 households in the U.S. uses self-storage.

So perhaps it’s only logical that storage units have been, like everything else, twisted and bastardized, used for all sorts of freakiness. (Both Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and the first World Trade Center attack terrorists housed their ingredients in self-storage facilities.) The public storage industry is very cautious about guarding its image, and therefore is loath to shine a light on all of the odd, possibly insane people who rent from it. Most of the managers and executives I spoke to were skittish about saying anything, perhaps so as not to give anyone any more crazy ideas. But one storage industry vet laid it out very succinctly: “I always said the next reality TV show should just be setting a camera outside a storage facility.”

“WE’VE NEVER HAD a body!” That’s what Kenneth Nitzberg, the chairman and CEO of Devon Self Storage, one of the region’s biggest storage companies, is telling me over the phone. Bodies are commonplace in many facilities; news stories over the past few years have detailed self-storage units as the final resting places for a surprising number of people. Devon did have snakes once. A manager at one of the Philly locations discovered a unit that had been left unlocked; inside was a laundry basket with an airtight sealed lid. She found two big boa constrictors inside. “It scared the bejabbers out of the manager,” Nitzberg says, “but we eventually found a reptile place to take them.”

More common are tales of the banal, like teens with rock bands who utilize the concrete confines to hone their rock-star skills, drink beer and be sullen. Larger storage facilities, with their speed bumps and thousands of feet of asphalt acreage, have become makeshift X Games terrain. “For whatever reason, our industry always seems to have an urban-legend kind of identity about it,” says James Overturf, senior vice president of Extra Space Storage, which runs 18 facilities in the Philadelphia area. “But 99.9 percent of our industry is primarily used for normal household items. The only time self-storage is in the news is when it’s bad — the money, the guns, the bodies.”

“Because of the new security systems and because everything is on a credit-card payment plan, the industry has cleaned up a lot,” adds Louis Gilmore, a part-owner of Mr. Storage, one of the first storage-unit firms to open in Philly, 30 years ago. “It’s not like the ’70s, where you’d come to the facility and see a guy shaving in the driveway.”

Indeed, the ballooning of the self-storage industry in the ’70s and ’80s had perhaps as much to do with societal changes as with rampant consumerism. As everything in our lives became more temporary, the storage unit came to represent an outpost for down-and-outers, associated with tough times: unemployment, divorce, death, eviction. Tom Vanderbilt, a noted writer on American architecture, says the units represent a “panorama of the American experience.” “Yes, you do have people who may be using them temporarily because their mortgage was foreclosed upon, or they broke up with a spouse, or they’re serving time,” he adds. “Then again, I have had friends who got posted to Europe for a job or are between moves, and in that regard they signify opportunity and future.”

A COUPLE OF YEARS ago, storage units entered the unlikely focus of the tabloids when the contents of Paris Hilton’s were auctioned off because of an overdue bill for $208; her teenage diaries were found inside. Most facilities hold monthly public auctions at which the contents of deadbeat renters’ units are up for grabs to the highest bidder. One Philadelphia storage manager tells me this is the “saddest part of the industry” for him; he feels guilty unloading people’s memories — their lives — to strangers. Most of the time, it’s stuff nobody wants — or at least should want.

Curious as to what people so carelessly discard, I attend an auction one afternoon, hoping to bear witness to someone scoring a severed body part or shoebox full of heroin. It’s at 10 a.m. at Devon Self Storage off Bristol Road in Trevose, an enterprise that looks like a cross between a car dealership and a maximum-security prison. A giant banner declaring WE. SELL. BOXES in red lettering is buttressed by a seven-foot-high gate of the variety usually found surrounding the estates of vampires or reclusive celebrities.

Devon’s manager, Tommy, tells me that “the same eight guys” usually show up for auctions. Today there’s only one, Mike, who’s in a dark van that resembles the one used by the A-Team, only without the red racing stripe.

“You here for the auction?” Mike asks me as I stand in the parking lot, waiting for 10 o’clock to strike. I nod. “Well, let’s go. Looks like it’s me and you.”

We sign in, leaving our information and phone numbers. There’s a form to sign stating that if any bank records or personal photos end up in our loot, we’ll bring them back so they can be returned to the owner. (Storage people are not heartless!) Anything “illegal” has to be turned over to the police.

Mike carries a large Black & Decker flashlight, which he uses to inspect the auctioned units. Because here’s the rub: You’re not actually allowed inside before you bid. Instead, you stand outside and peer in, relying on instinct to tell you if something good is hidden in a soggy carton. It’s a treasure hunt, albeit a lowbrow one.

We walk through the massive concrete structure that houses 200 or so units, all with padlocked lasagna-noodle-shaped doors. A female manager unlocks the first unit, a 10-by-30 garage, then looks at us. “Ready?” she asks.

The giant door roars open, and Mike’s flashlight beams in. The unit is full of junk: stacks of tires, an air compressor, a mini dirt bike, kids’ toys, boxes, disassembled furniture. There’s enough stuff here to fill the back of a dump truck. The manager starts the bidding at $25. Two managers and Mike wait to see if I bid. I don’t. Mike gets the contents — somebody’s old life — for $25.

As we amble over to the next unit, Mike seems happy. “I really wanted that compressor, man,” he says.

The next is a smaller unit. Inside are 10 beat-up, water-damaged shipping boxes. Mike’s flashlight flicks on. “Aw, man … ” he says. He’s awarded the contents for $10. “You should pay me to get rid of this stuff,” he huffs as he begins sorting through the salvage. “What is this shit?” He holds up what appear to be some musty outdoor furniture cushions, then quickly stuffs them back in a box. I ask a manager if anybody ever gets anything really worthwhile at these auctions. “Sure. They sell a lot of this stuff,” she says.

The entire auction takes 12 minutes.

ON A BRIGHT Saturday a month later, Kathleen and I go to retrieve our stuff from storage. There are actually some signs of life today: One man whips open his unit to pick up his stack of Auto Trader magazines, while another, whose body resembles a giant beer keg with lots of hair, takes off his shirt and just hangs out amidst a clutter of old car parts and broken furniture.

Once we clean out our unit, Goblin Lady says there’s more paperwork to sign. Afterward, she’ll inspect our space to make sure we aren’t leaving anything behind.

“So, you must hate this part, huh?” I say. “This is the part where you see all the weird stuff?”

She breezes over the question and begins talking about her time working as a security guard at an abandoned prison in Philadelphia, and all the weird stuff she’d see there. “This was late at night,” she says. “You could only imagine what it was like being there. … ”

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