A few months ago, while flipping through the dial, I decided to stop and check out a show called “Storage Wars”. It’s a reality show that gives the viewer the supposed scoop regarding the world of earning a living by way of the storage auction circuit. They high lite six characters in the show and basically follow them around as they buy, and then figure out how to sell the contents of the storage lockers they have purchased. I watched one episode and was immediately convinced I had a new hobby.
Anyhow, from that day on I was quietly observing the bay area auction scene through a website that sends out a daily list, and hoping for a day that involved me having a business appointment in close proximity to an auction. After about three weeks of comparing my whereabouts to the daily auction schedule, bingo! I had a meeting about ten minutes from an auction in Oakland. My meeting was at 9:30 am and the auction started at 11:00. The meeting went great and even better, it only lasted about 45 minutes so I was able to get to the auction site early to scope out the situation and identify the regulars I needed to make friends with. It was in a rough neighborhood, so there was awesome looking food everywhere. Greasy spoons, BBQ shacks, Soul food kitchens etc. I almost pulled in a little place that touted collard greens and turkey necks on the window sign but thought better of it in favor of starving myself for the sake of some intel.
I pulled onto the street and immediately saw my guy.
Sitting on the back of his 1995 Buick La Saber was a guy in a blaze orange t-shirt adorned with suspenders holding up his pants. He was happily kicked back, eating on an orange and tossing the peels on the street, waiting for the games to begin. I got out of my car and gingerly walked towards him like I knew him. From 30 feet away I said, “I’m another dork that saw the show and got curious, am I in the right place?” He gave me the affirmative and turned back to his lunch. ” So have you been to an auction here before?” I said. “Bout a hundred times, but it’s all gone to hell now that those dam shows have taken off”, he grunted. I promised that I wasn’t one of “them”, and that I was just along for the ride. I asked him a bunch of questions about the level of his involvement and learned that buying and selling lockers had been his primary occupation for over twenty years. I also learned that under his tough guy exterior, he was a super nice guy. By the time we finished chatting, the auctioneer walked outside the storage facility and made a motion with his hands in the air that let everyone (but me) know that it was show time. My friend reached in his car to grab a step ladder and his ten million candle power light and was about to head off without even a goodbye. “Do you mind if I roll with you today?” I said. He whipped around like he knew what was coming and said ” you gonna bid?” I quickly examined my “actual” stomach for the scene…”not if you let me tag along with you” I blurted. He smiled…long pause…”Let’s go to work!” he finally said.
From that point on, it was like I was his personal biographer. He never stopped talking. He explained the nuance, the nooks and crannies…the REAL. He educated me about why he buys the lockers he buys, why he doesn’t buy the lockers he doesn’t buy,how he sells…and most importantly, how he gets rid of the JUNK for FREE. “Mike” explained why his circuit is a modest 20 mile radius of his Oakland home. He gave me some example locker purchase scenarios that included old computers, or tires, saying that all the profit in a locker can quickly go out the window if one isn’t able to “move” things for free. See, Mike knows the guy in Oakland that takes decent tires for free and he also knows the guy that actually pays a couple bucks for old computers and other electronics. He swears that the difference between him and all the other jerks that loose money in the locker racket is that his disposal cost is virtually zero.
Enough with the technical, the good stuff really has to do with Mike’s approach…
Mike and I, along with about 50 other people responded to the auctioneers gesture and swarmed around him as a “sign in” clip board circulated. During the sign in, I was able to understand that of the 50 people, only about 15 of them actually did this for a living. This reality helped me relax a bit, which was much needed since my heart seemed to be pounding since the moment I spotted mike sucking down his orange. It all happened so fast…I was the last person to sign the sheet and then suddenly the auctioneer rattled off some info about paying in cash and moving the stuff within 24 hours and then BAM “CanIGet2020202030 now i got 303050!50505050who’s got 100?..100!ok here we go 100, whos got 150…150? anyone 150…150! 150 to the lady in red, who’s got 200?….200?….150 once…twice…SOLD TO THE LADY IN RED!
As the bidding was happening, Mike was in my ear about how the unit contained too much stuff that may cost money to dispose of and also about how it was generally junky, containing too many boxes of used clothing and cheap housewares. Mike was confident there was no money to be made on the locker….I smiled and nodded.
Three other lockers went in a similar fashion, too much dough for not enough stuff…as per Mike.
The fifth locker was unique in that it was a small cabinet that was up above the regular lockers. Like the cupboard above your fridge, it required a step ladder to see inside. When the locker was announced, Mike and I nudged our way through to the front of the line and Mike positioned his portable folding ladder in front of the locker. He quickly ascended the steps and shined his light inside, shaking his head as if he’d seen a lady smack her kid at the grocery store. He came down and gestured for me to go up and get a look. I scooted up and peered into the dark crawl space that looked like it may have been the single piece of real estate held by a homeless man. Sleeping bag, magazines, canned food, black garbage bag full of clothes, pillow etc… I immediately realized why Mike was unimpressed with the investment opportunity and I quickly came back down from the ladder. The instant my feet hit the ground, Mike grabbed the ladder and folded it up and swung it around his shoulder. People started hollering and jeering saying…”c’mon man, leave the ladder so we can all see!” Mike ignored the crowd and we made our way to the back of the pack. Once we got to the back wall, Mike looked over to me and simply said “competitive advantage John…competitive advantage”.
The locker went to a guy wearing sweatpants and a mickey mouse hoodie for 20 bucks, Mike chuckled and shook his head as we made our way to locker # 6.
This locker immediately caught Mike’s attention. It was small, like 5×5 but it was absolutely jam packed with stuff. We could see a samurai sword, an antique scale for measuring things like gold or pharmaceuticals, a banjo case and about 30 boxes of the same size, packed thoughtfully and not touched for at least a couple years based on the dust. This locker really flushed out the rookies because they all knew their wives would kill them if they came home with a mess of this proportion. There were only three bidders and one of them dropped out at a hundred bucks. The bidding moved up in ten dollar increments to Mike’s $190 gesture. Mike knew the other guy bidding and it was clear to me that the other guy sensed that Mike was serious and bowed out because he had been in this same situation with my new friend before. “SOLD!!! for $190 to Mike!” the auctioneer shouted. Mike v-lined for the locker taking the pad lock off the rope around his neck and opening it as he nudged his way through the crowd. He slammed the doors shut and slapped his lock on it in one motion and then turned and walked briskly to the back of the pack. I was following along and watching Mike closely. It was clear that he got GREAT satisfaction out of winning the locker. His heart was pounding and that was evidenced by the tremble in his voice as he began rattling off the many reasons this was a great locker. Honestly, it was invigorating for me as well!
At this point, Mike was pumped up and ready for another locker. He bought the very next one in similar style and then quit. We snuck away and circled back around to the banjo locker to get a better look. It was a gold mine. Most of the boxes were full of books from the 20’s in mint condition and the scale was worth over 600.00 based on a quick google search from my phone. He was elated. He explained that it’s always good to load your arms up with the most valuable stuff you find right away and take it home the day of the auction because you never know who saw the stuff and how badly they might want it. I perceived his mini rant as paranoid but I appreciated his passion all the same. We carried the scale and a few other things out to his car and loaded them up as we chatted excitedly about the other things we thought we saw during the initial scan of the locker. The next order of business was to go to the office and pay one months rent on both of the lockers. Mike insisted that it’s foolish to try and get all the stuff out of a locker in the allotted 24 hours because when a locker is dealt with hastily, lots of money goes out the window. He buys 2 lockers a week on average and always rents them for a month. It gives him time to sort the contents into “valuable”, “semi-valuable”, “junk he can find a home for” and finally “junk that will cost $$ to dispose of”. He insists that by renting the unit for thirty days and taking a thoughtful approach to the sorting process, the $$junk pile shrinks considerably. I totally understand. I know myself and if I had 24 hours to clear out a locker, I would be throwing things like used golf balls into the junk pile when in fact they are worth 50 cents a piece at the flea market. Mike moves his valuable stuff mostly online and then has a permanent booth at a local flea market where he sells the things worth less than $20.00 or so. The hope with the flea-market is to make a couple hundred bucks a day and mitigate the expense that would have gone along with disposing of the stuff. He says that this is the nitty gritty part of the business that separates the winners from the losers. The guys that throws everything away but the good stuff ends up loosing money in the end because the valuables usually aren’t that valuable and the disposal costs add up quickly. Turn the junk into a few hundred bucks and the bottom line shapes up nicely. He also moves small valuables like old pocket watches and good baseball cards through the flea market, but he does a monthly booth at a more up scale (lots of antiques) place for that.
I’m realizing now that I could say quite a bit more about my storage auction adventure with Mike, but I trust you get a sense for how interesting it was by now:)
I didn’t end up having any turkey necks or collard greens on my way back to the office because I ended up joining mike for some Chinese take out…
What a cool day!
BTW: The rest of this story is about my 1st (and last) locker purchase and how I moved the contents. I’ll be sure to share the experience before the new year:)