Leaving Your Past Behind

Two months ago in California, a thrift-store owner bought the contents of a storage unit at an auction for 20 bucks. As she picked through the stuff, she found wedding pictures of a happy bride and groom. Then she found the groom. He was stuffed in a cardboard box. Maybe the junk-buyers gathered on a gray morning in Coram will be as lucky.

The buyers' half-dozen vans quickly fill the tiny parking lot of U-Haul Self-Storage. Coram is the first stop for these antique dealers and flea marketers on a day of storage-unit auctions. When the auctioneer arrives, he tells the group that there are three units up for sale. The ad in the paper had listed six, but three customers of the storage place must have hauled ass down to Coram and paid their bills to keep their stuff from being picked over by strangers and then sorted out and sold to other strangers.

All told, eight rummage pros have shown up this morning, and they follow the auctioneer down the hallways of the orange-and-white monolith until he stops at No. 1242.

As a U-Haul employee fumbles with the keys to open up the padlock on the sliding door, the eight buyers eagerly stand behind him to get a first peek at the goods inside the 5-foot-by-10-foot room. The padlock is opened and the door is lifted to reveal the first catch of the day. The buyers, accustomed to sizing up things at a glance, look into the room and then turn away.

"All right, ladies and gentleman," auctioneer John Cure says in a booming voice. "We sell the room in its entirety. As-is. Where-is."

Everybody knows the other rules, too. You can't bid on individual items; you buy the whole room. You have to clean out the room, including garbage. And you can't open up any boxes to look inside. You can't even step into a room before you buy it. You have to make your bid based only on what your eyes can see. Some buyers shine flashlights into the cavities between boxes and bags, hoping to spot a treasure that others may have missed. At No. 1242, they're not seeing much.

"OK," Cure says, "the bidding starts at $25."

Stephen Douglas, 33, part-owner of Little Shop of Memories in Brookhaven, bids $5.

"I saw the microwave," Douglas says with shrug. "I can get 20 for that." The room satisfied Douglas' personal rule: Price everything in the room that you can see and bid only up to that price. Everything else in the room is gravy. Of course, it's the gravy that people are hungry for. People have found old military medals, gold, money and guns buried in the boxes. "One time someone found a live hand grenade. One time a stolen car," says Douglas.

Sometimes you strike gold. Most of the time, you strike shit. "Last week," says Douglas, "I bought a unit for 150 bucks. I didn't see anything, but it was packed. It turns out it was garbage. Garbage wrapped up in garbage. Wrapped up like Christmas presents. I guess they figured it was cheaper than to have somebody come get it, so they dumped it in the unit."

At the next room for sale, Douglas sees a radio that he could get $20 for, and he spots a bulky cabinet TV which could fetch $25. He buys the room for $5.

The final lot is the crème de la crumbs. As the door is lifted, a chorus of "oohs" greets a leather couch, a late-model TV and a nice vase with fancy imitation flowers. The bidding starts at $50, and it's fierce. Douglas' associate, Fran Lesser, 60, of Medford, drops out at $200. The unit sells for $250.

But the Douglas-Lesser team bought two rooms. After paying for them—and leaving a $100 deposit to ensure they clean out the rooms completely—Lesser, her son Joe, 38, and Douglas get a cart and haul their booty home.

This is the fun part, when you open the boxes to see whether you found a Civil War rifle or Jimmy Hoffa. In the first locker, they are met by bric-a-brac, kitchen stuff, a ball of twine, a fish bowl, a box of hangers and clothes. They will go through the pockets later, but on first inspection, all they got in this one was the microwave.

The second $5 room yields a black light, a bag of shoes, and pots and pans. Douglas and Joe Lesser load box after box into a cart. One wicker chest in the back is filled with corn flakes, a half-empty bottle of Italian dressing, Gulden's mustard. "You're not supposed to do that," Fran Lesser says of storing food in these lockers.

Joe reaches into the room and pulls out a small blue suitcase.

"That's children's stuff," his mom tells him.

"How do you know?" Joe replies. "It could be money."

He pulls back the zipper and stuffed animals spill out.

 
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