It’s hard to imagine a more boring reality TV show premise than the premise that structures Storage Wars. For those not in the know, it goes something like this:
Abandoned storage units go up for auction. A regular cast of storage auction buyers bid on a given unit. The top bidder wins the entire contents of the unit in question. Viewers at home learn the value of said contents. Some buyers lose money, some profit, some break even. After a series of units are sold, the show ends.
But reality television producers have always had an uncanny ability to turn otherwise banal real-life situations into drama worthy of the most histrionic of soap operas. A&E, the channel that once featured sweeping family sagas, effete fine arts programs, and Emmy-award winning biographies, now claims Storage Wars as its most watched program since the channel’s inception in 1984. To give you an idea—5.1 million viewers tuned in to the show’s second season premiere in 2011.
Don’t get me wrong. Lackluster premises notwithstanding, Storage Wars sucked me in as quickly as it sucked in the rest of the nation. What’s not to like? The show’s characters are a motley crew of larger-than-life personalities, each with their own quirks, their own list of enemies, their own unit-buying and bidding strategy.
Barry Weiss, the witty antique collector who exudes classic Hollywood cool, is an easy audience favorite. Husband and wife team Jarrod Schulz and Brandi Passante give us that cutesy, quibbling couple everyone can relate to. Curmudgeon David Hester, who often bids just to have his competitors get stuck with a unit and overpay, represents an archetype invariably featured on all reality TV shows—the guy you love to hate.
But character development and conflict is only one part of what makes the show so engrossing. Storage Wars has spawned a metastasizing list of shows with the exact same premise, less compelling characters, and a slightly different title. There’s Storage Wars: Texas, Auction Hunters, and Storage Hunters, an unsettling, almost creepy amalgam of Storage Wars and Jersey Shore. What, then, is all the fuss about?
The key to storage auction shows’ popularity is perhaps the key to the abiding popularity of all reality TV shows. There’s this notion, subtly implanted in our brains as we soak in each minute, that you, too, dear viewer, can be one of them. You, too, can be America’s Next Top Model, or be dancing with the stars, or could one day–heaven help you–work for Donald Trump.
What distinguishes storage auction shows from its other reality TV show predecessors is that you aren’t watching professions and opportunities usually reserved for the very lucky, talented few. You’re watching something anyone could just as easily do themselves. It’s as simple as picking up the classifieds section of your newspaper, finding a local auction, and showing up with enough cash to pay for a unit should you decide to bid.
But is it really that simple? Could you really turn a profit from buying storage units, all the while regularly finding valuable, interesting items hidden deep within the recesses of a delinquent renter’s pile of personal garbage?
Travis Lane, a Houston-based storage auction buyer who’s been in the business for three years, got the storage auction bug well before Storage Wars premiered.
“I kind of just fell into [my first storage auction] by accident. Me and another person were the only people there, and I ended up buying two units at a really good price.”
And that’s what got me interested,” notes Layne.
“Then I started attending storage auctions, and I did really well on my first several units, and I just got hooked. “
Now, Lane hosts a website, AuctionsTX.com, which relays comprehensive information to beginning bidders, as well as detailed auction listings covering the state of Texas. Lane began the site in response to the popularity of Storage Wars.
“The show brought out records of numbers of people to storage auctions across the country. And it became difficult for the regulars at storage auctions to make a living because the crowds were just pushing bids higher than they had ever been before to the point where no one could really make any money.”
“At that point,” Lane explains, “I began to ask myself, how can I do something else?” Seeing opportunity in the exploding interest in storage auctions, Lane started his website to educate those new to the business. The site’s blog is breathless mix of newbie tips (“Don’t Quit your Day Job”) TV show gossip (“What Happened to Lesa Lewis from Storage Wars Texas?”), and answers to questions you’d only be faced with in the peculiar world of storage auctions (“What Should you Do if you Find a Gun in a Storage Unit?”).
Though Lane is critical of the “Storage Wars effect” that’s driven out many who used to eke out a living buying units, he still watches the show. Lane lists off the ways in which reality TV storage auctions depart from the real thing.
“There’s almost no drama at storage auctions. You don’t see fights; you don’t see people trying to bid the other person up. You don’t find the amazing things that they show on television, you know, all that often.”
Lane recalls one spectacular find—a safe containing gold jewelry, Civil War memorabilia, and a valuable coin and stamp collection. On Storage Wars, units like this appear at least once per episode. In Lane’s experience, this is highlight of his hundreds-of-units career.
So if there’s no drama, no hidden treasures, what does happen at real storage auctions? I decided to find out for myself.
Attending an auction held outdoors in Houston in the middle of August is, if you value personal comfort, a bad idea from the very beginning. There’s probably no place on earth that makes the hellish, suffocating misery of Texas summers more apparent than a storage facility. It’s a treeless landscape of concrete, metal, and fencing, and the half dozen or so of us who’ve come line up along the slim strip of shade cast over the soon-to-be-auctioned unit’s awning.
The auctioneer, a woman named Bobbie Sue, rattles off the rules of the game as each of us takes a peek into the unit. There’s a box with a pair of boots, a washer and dryer set, and what appears to be a large remote-controlled truck. The rest is nondescript junk. Someone in the crowd jokes that the dryer is, in fact, a safe disguised as a dryer.
The bidding begins. One person bids with no challengers. The unit sells, to the highest, and in this case, the only bidder, for a whopping total of ten dollars. So much for storage wars.
I talk to a man new to the storage auction scene, David Delguidice, who’s been attending auctions for only the past few weeks. Delguidice’s interest was piqued after watching the shows, and he’s now incorporated storage auctions into his various unnamed “ventures” that allow him to escape the 9-to-5 lifestyle he despises.
“I come from a family of entrepreneurs and self-starters. I just can’t work like that, in an office all day,” Delguidice says. Of all things, Delguidice went to film school. I ask Delguidice what’s the oddest thing he’s found in the units he’s bought, and he comments on the prevalence of sex toys.
“I make sure to pick those up with a towel and throw them away.”
Like Lane, Delguidice enjoys the storage auctions TV shows but now understands the reality behind reality TV.
“The business involves a lot more grinding, and it’s a lot dirtier.” He talks about the hours spent cleaning out a unit, which must be emptied forty-eight hours after it’s purchased. Half of the items he finds he has no choice but to throw away.
“It’s easier for storage auction buyers who have their own thrift stores. They have space to try and sell those smaller items that you just can’t on sites like Craigslist and eBay.”
Delguidice wins the second unit up for auction, again as the only bidder, and again for only ten dollars. The final unit—remnants of what looks like a fabric store–draws considerable interest from the small crowd. Bids increase as three or four bidders jump into the fray. Though characters on Storage Wars bid loudly and theatrically (who can forget David Hester’s signature “Yuuuupp!!”?) the bids here are submitted largely in silence. Bobbie Sue, the auctioneer, keeps track as the bidders nod in agreement to her stated figure. The fabric store unit sells for two hundred dollars.
Later, Delguidice dismisses the excitement over the unit that received so many bids. “You never know with a unit like that. All those spools of fabric could be old. It’s possible that you wouldn’t be able to sell that stuff to anyone for anything. All that could be worthless.”
What’s most surprising about a live storage auction is that it’s over before you know it. The auctioning off of four units takes all of twenty minutes, and then the auctioneer is off to the next storage facility. Perhaps out of a desire to stave off feelings of disappointment in this process that’s so matter-of-fact and efficient—nothing like it is on TV–I tag along to the next auction. Maybe there’s more to it.
The crowd is bigger, maybe ten people total, and there are a few of the same bidders from the previous auction. Though the winning bids are a bit steeper here, it’s still not over two or three hundred dollars. The contents of each unit I cannot now recall. From the few minutes that each participant gets to look through the opened unit door without entering, it all looks like junk to me—stuff that its past owners had no use for but, for whatever reason, couldn’t stand to throw or give away.
It’s hard to remember from watching Storage Wars and its sibling shows that, at the end of the day, buying storage units is, for some at least, a serious business. Lane estimates that thirty percent of storage auction participants are full-time professionals, professionals who are now struggling to survive.
“I think if these shows go off the air–and interest has been dying out some–it will have a positive effect on the storage auction business,” says Lane, who believes the fad will one day pass. “The auctions will go down in attendance, and perhaps people will be able to buy units at a reasonable price again. I don’t think it’ll ever be the same again [after Storage Wars], but conditions will improve.”
If the storage auction business is seen through the prism of what it is, and not what it’s portrayed to be, then it becomes like any business or enterprise. Though owning a restaurant or writing a novel sound great theoretically, though dream jobs seem doable in the fantastical ether of reality television, it’s the “dirty work”– the whole process Lane and Delguidice emphasized throughout my time with them–that separates those who are successful from those who just watch TV.
“[Buying storage auctions] can be a good business for someone who comes in with realistic expectations, and for someone who’s really willing to work,” notes Lane. “It all depends on a person’s luck, but mostly it depends on a person’s work ethic.”
“All the small, insignificant stuff –a dollar here, a dollar there–really adds up. The key to making money in this business is by maximizing your profit on everything you add up.”