KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
FORT WORTH, Texas -- Jim Hartwell's storage problems began when he inherited a treasure-trove of family photos and boxes full of memorabilia.
"This started in 1996," said Hartwell, of Bedford, Texas. "There was, unfortunately, stuff that, in my mind, has to be gone through."
Hartwell has whittled it down but still has piles to go.
He's hardly alone: Americans have apparently run out of room, even though the average house now has 2,330 square feet, up 55 percent from 1970.
Fortunately, the self-storage concept came along just in time to offer a haven for heirlooms, monster RVs, Sea-Doos, and other odds and ends that no longer fit in America's overstuffed closets, attics and garages.
The insatiable race for space is fueling a $15 billion self-storage industry that dwarfs Hollywood's annual $9 billion. And what was once a mom-and-pop business has become an industry with companies whose stock is traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
The miniwarehouse has become as much a part of the landscape as the strip center and the shopping mall.
"A lot of it is driven by life changes," said Ginny Sutton, executive director of the Texas Mini Warehouse Association.
One in 11 Americans now rents self-storage space, up from one in 17 a decade ago, according to the Virginia-based Self Storage Association.
The reasons folks are seeking more room are as varied as the stuff they're storing.
Divorce can trigger the need for storage. So can marriage.
Commercial clients account for an estimated 40 percent of self-storage rentals. After all, it makes sense for an attorney to park old files in an $80-a-month climate-controlled miniwarehouse instead of filling expensive office space with old briefs.
"Everybody has too much stuff," said Brian Cockshutt, who manages a climate-controlled, two-story self-storage building in Arlington, Texas, that was once an eight-screen theater. "It's the American way -- thank goodness."
Hartwell has found treasures in the family trash.
They included a jewelry box containing mint-condition coins from the 1893 Columbian Exposition, a telegram from Abraham Lincoln to one of Hartwell's ancestors and a 1796 edition of a book on Capt. Cook's voyages.
"It's those kinds of experiences that make me want to look at those boxes," said Hartwell, who has shrunk the junk from a 10-by-10-foot storage space to a 5-by-5.
Back in Michigan, Rita Hamner could keep the Christmas village she began building when she was 16 set up in her basement. But there's no display room at her Mansfield, Texas, home, so she keeps it in a self-storage unit. The last time she assembled it, the village filled an 18-by-18 room.
"We have a lot of stuff in storage, but this is the big thing," said Hamner, 70, who's still collecting.
Mark Williams, treasurer of the Arlington Arts League, keeps the nonprofit organization's files at City Storage, along with the pi & ntilde;atas and other props for the league's annual Margarita Ball.
"What I don't understand is people who put stuff in the garage and park the car in the driveway," Williams said. "Have a garage sale!"
That's not an option for everyone.
"I have one customer, who, it's his closet," City Storage manager Heather Cotton said. She said the man arrives at his warehouse around 8 a.m. every day. "He gets a change of clothes, a pair of shoes and leaves.
"It's a little one, about the size of a closet," she said. "He just grabs a hanger and goes."
Of course, for some, it takes more than a mere miniwarehouse.
After filling a 20-by 35-foot barn with stuff, retiree Bob Bateman of Azle built a 40-by-40-foot barn to hold the rest.
"It's even got a mezzanine and it's loaded down, too," said his brother, Rufus Bateman. "We can't hardly get in there and play poker anymore. You can tell him it has come to your attention that he is the epitome of a pack rat."
Bob Bateman, 69, acknowledges that he never met a yard sale he didn't like. In addition to some other stuff, his new barn shelters three tractors; four lawn mowers; a new, still-in-the-box commode; and a singing electronic fish.
He is quick to point out that his brother's back yard is terraced with railroad ties that Bateman scavenged.
"To him it's junk," Bob Bateman said. "To me, it's good junk. I may need it someday."
Buy a bigger house
Sherry Knutson figured she and her husband would have to go the miniwarehouse route after they wed, blending the contents of their houses.
Then her husband decided to buy a bigger house, keep his stuff handy and take a tax deduction.
"We just couldn't see putting the money into a storage unit," Knutson said. "We are our own storage facility."
So instead of a 2,200-square-foot house, the Knutsons and their belongings moved into a 3,500-square-footer.
There are two rooms for his goodies -- a stuffed hawk, a bumper pool table, a button-key cash register from the pharmacy where he used to work. She has a room for her collection of board games, dolls and clown paraphernalia.
"Our material possessions are like an extension of us," Knutson said.
"It reminds you that even though it's just the two of us, we're not alone," she said.
"The past keeps me moving forward. It keeps me company."
After the deaths of her parents and brother, Deborah Abraham found herself the sole guardian of her family's memorabilia.
She transported to Texas about 40 boxes of World War II love letters, report cards and photos, plus four cats, plantings from her mom's garden, the family piano and her brother's college ring.
But she couldn't consign the things to storage; they're in her Colleyville home.
"As to the question of why am I keeping this all?" Abraham wrote, "because I have no family left [and no kids myself] to share the great stories and memories and 'remember whens'... with these material possessions being the tangible reminders from a family now gone and a daughter left standing."
Viola Lynn Armendariz managed to stuff her excess belongings in a miniwarehouse after a divorce, when she moved from a 10-acre spread to a city apartment.
But the warehouse is so full of George Foreman toasters, flatware and videos that she couldn't find her car title.
"I thought I was organized; I'm not," Armendariz said. "I have a tub full of pencils.
"I could start two homes," she said. "I need like, 10 trucks to get all that stuff out of there."
"I've got 432 Beanie Babies in there in boxes," she said. "Now why do I have those? I think I have a serious problem right now."
Armendariz recently decided to give her eyes a rest and switch from contacts back to glasses.
She knows she owns a pair, but she can't quite reach her specs. They're on the other side of a pile of boxes, storage tubs and mattresses in her apartment.
"I need a ladder," she said. "I'm really concerned."
I told you so
Jim Chartier pays $125 a month for a 10-by-12-foot self-storage cubicle.
Everything was fine until the day they called to say somebody had crashed a truck into the warehouse and burglarized two dozen units.
"I went to my unit, and the lock was broken off and nothing was stolen," Chartier said. "They didn't touch a single item. Now that's junk.
"My wife found out," Chartier said, recalling her reaction: 'I told you it was junk!'"
But Chartier still has hopes of getting it organized in October, when the temperature should drop.
"How many years have I been saying that?" he said, laughing. "It comes around like a holiday."
And if he doesn't get it cleaned out, Chartier has another plan.
"I was going to write a book called Storage Stories," he said. "Each one must have its own little story in there."