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Pick of the day: Foraging in America's storage units

This past weekend, This American Life aired a piece by writer Jon Mooallem about people who buy the contents of abandoned storage units.

Abandoned, in this case, doesn't mean unwanted. The owners of the contents fell behind on their storage unit bills, so the storage rental places auction off their stuff.

Mooallem, who has written for the Believer, Harper's and Mother Jones, haunts storage unit auctions in the Bay Area, mixing among the folks who bid on units without really getting a good look at what's in them. They can't go inside the storage space or look in any boxes. Instead, they scan them with flashlights and have to guess what's there by looking at the outlines of shapes, or how neatly things are stacked. Many of the bidders then sell what they buy on eBay or at flea markets. Some even scrape out a living doing it.

The experienced storage unit bidders share a few rules of thumb, such as a flat-panel TV box never holds a flat-panel TV. Each has his or her own strategy, like one fellow who bids only on the appliances and electronics he can see -- a vacuum cleaner, for instance, or a toaster-- and no more. Often, these prospectors happen upon other people's misfortune, like one man who realizes that the unit he and his girlfriend just bought probably belonged to someone with a drug problem.

Sometimes the people bidding are only slightly less desperate than the people whose belongings they're hoping to buy. One of them recounts how he lost all of his possessions that he had acquired up through the age of 15 because his drug-addicted parents failed to pay the bill on their storage space. He now supports a girlfriend and two children selling what he buys from storage units. When he comes across toys, he takes them back to the storage place so they can be returned to their previous owners.

What I liked most about the segment was that it is the flip side of stories I remember reading in the 1990s about the growth of the storage unit industry and what a testament it was to our endless accumulation of stuff. In that case, storage units offered a way to tell the story of better economic times. In this case, they are a way to tell the story of bleaker ones.

By Annys Shin  | January 26, 2010; 8:04 AM ET
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