Abandoned Treasures

The Orange County Register

Long before reality TV thrust junk into the public spotlight, Steve Cox spent his days at public auctions, buying up personal belongings abandoned in rental self-storage units.

The cache is a staggering testament to a nation’s abundance. It also represents a proven source of income for Cox, who sweeps aside spiders and dust to rummage through shoeboxes, bags, trunks, plastic bins and jewelry cases on a search for anything that can be resold at a profit.

Amid endless piles of miscellany are treasures to be found. Cox has unearthed lamps, sewing machines, kayaks, coins, motor scooters, record albums, sex toys and even a rare ukulele that he later hand-delivered to a buyer in Hawaii. The collector arrived by Learjet to meet him and forked over $5,000 in cash.

“If it’s been invented on this planet, that’s what you’ll find” in storage, said Cox, a 56-year-old Costa Mesa, Calif., resident who has labored half his life buying and selling used personal belongings.

The extraordinary growth of self-storage, now a $22 billion-a-year industry in the U.S., has spawned its own quirky offshoot trade populated by opportunists like Cox and his business partner, Richard Pickard, who run an online secondhand shop, AdvancedEstateSaleServices.com. They are regulars at the storage yards and at estate sales, often with Cox’s 10-year-old son, Preston, who is learning the trade.

Auctions enable owners of storage yards to recoup on uncollected rents and empty out nonpaying units to get them back on the market, but for decades much of the industry kept the sales quiet, advertising them only through required public notices. Storage operators were — and, in many cases, still are — loath to point out that they liquidate their former customers’ personal possessions. Delinquent renters often are incensed at losing keepsakes, such as baby pictures and jewelry, they had purposely stashed away for safekeeping.

“It was a hidden secret — nobody really knew about them,” Cox said of the first auctions he attended some 15 years ago. “I was in the antique business for years and didn’t know about them.”

For a small number of insiders, the auctions were always a profitable buying opportunity and exciting — a kind of “Let’s Make a Deal” where prizes are hidden behind every door. Typically, the storage vault is opened, and would-be bidders are allowed a glimpse inside, but they cannot enter the enclosure or touch the merchandise. No one can open boxes or dresser drawers or peek behind standing mattresses. Would-be buyers often bring flashlights to probe into dark corners. An element of mystery, coupled with the tensions of competitive bidding, made the events a natural for reality TV — and, sure enough, along came “Storage Wars,” “Storage Hunters” and “Auction Hunters,” sleeper hits that have attracted a cultlike following.

Despite lingering qualms by the publicity-shy industry, storage auctions have become a well-known, if not quite mainstream, marketplace. Crowds are larger, especially when the shows are in season. A storage room stacked with goods might have sold for $100 five years ago; now the same stash might go for upward of $200, operators say. Storage yards have benefited, but tighter profit margins have put a squeeze on auction buyers.

“It used to be a halfway decent business,” said Dale Lauper of Buena Park, Calif., who has been buying at auctions for 25 years.

Few sales draw crowds of more than 50, but to make any significant money, a buyer has to be shrewd on both ends — in finding bargains and also in knowing how to flip the goods, get them sold quickly at the best price to make way for the next load. Buyers talk about the hard labor, the “sweat equity,” involved in moving and sorting, deciding what should be set out at yard sales and swap meets and what should be posted on eBay and Craigslist. Successful dealers are able to capitalize on things of unusual value; they develop networks of contacts, people who are willing to shell out the maximum price for a Duke Snider baseball card or a rare hood ornament from a 1949 Packard.

“It’s a hustle — it’s time-consuming,” said Pickard, a 45-year-old former teacher who began working with Cox seven years ago, selling antiques at the Rose Bowl swap meet. Cox’s great strength, Pickard said, is his expansive knowledge.

“Steve could go to any garage sale in America and make money — he’s that good,” Pickard said. “He knows antiques, he knows electronics, he knows everything.”

And still, Cox has been burned, once by putting too much faith in collectible Hallmark Christmas ornaments. There was a time, he said, when a single Star Trek ornament could fetch $300 to $400. He bought up ornaments everywhere he could find them, paying $25 apiece for 50 at a time. He invested thousands of dollars before eBay went online, flooding the market.

“I still have literally hundreds and hundreds of ornaments at my sister’s house,” Cox said. “They’re basically worthless.”

Cox toiled 10 years as an independent contractor appraising odds and ends for an Orange County, Calif., secondhand dealer named Dave Hester, who bought storage units in volume — five or 10 a day, Cox said. “He had two big, 26-foot bobtail trucks,” Cox said. “He’d load boxes onto the bobtails and bring them to me. I was responsible for going through all that merchandise. I’d help him figure out what things were good.”

Concentrating on his own company now, Cox, like most full-time buyers, seeks quality merchandise from every available source, not just at storage auctions. Estate sales are one of his specialties. Even with those, and with all of his know-how, the payoff is barely adequate.

“As soon as you make money, you’re out buying stuff,” Cox said. “It’s all tied up in inventory. Then you’ve got to pay for storage.”

He and Pickard rent storage units just to house and sort through their acquisitions. Going through the boxes and bags is a strange, voyeuristic experience — a peek into the world of the prior owners. “Their entire lives are in these things,” Cox said. “Toys. Pictures. It is very sad.”

Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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