Psychology by the Square Foot

Victoria Clayton is a freelance writer living in Westlake Village.

Before those big orange public storage signs and others like them dotted the sides of Southern California freeways, psychoanalyst Erich Fromm had already posed this prescient question: "If I am what I have, and what I have is lost, who then am I?"

It's not something veteran self-storage managers David and Tina Fleming take lightly. The Flemings are itinerant self-storage facility managers, and David recently found himself in Las Vegas among the 3,700 self-storage owners and managers from around the country who gathered for this year's annual Inside Self-Storage Expo. The Flemings understand something deep and often dark about people and the crazy ways they relate to their possessions. For example, they will tell you about the customers they call the Queen Anne Chair Couple. It goes like this: A husband and wife come in to rent a small unit for a chair--just a single chair--they bought at an auction for $200. "The wife promised her husband if he bought it she'd refurbish it and they'd make their money a few times over," Tina Fleming recalls. "Then his wife ended up passing away and he came in and told us he hated that chair from the beginning, she never fixed it up like she said she would, and asked us how he could get rid of it." But that was after a three-year run during which the Queen Anne ran up nearly $2,000 in storage fees. Tina sees an even more dramatic story beneath the surface: a man dealing with disappointment and grief, and finally deciding to move on.

The Flemings also could tell you about the Glider Family. The family lost their home and rented two of the largest units--10 feet by 30 feet--to house about 10 rooms of furniture and the contents of a garage. They crammed the units to the ceilings with couches, lawn furniture, appliances, their little boy's toys. It took 2 1/2 years before the family got back on its feet. "They finally found a place to live, and they open their units and right away ask me if I have a Dumpster or if I can take some of the stuff off their hands. My husband and I bought a patio glider from them, but they gave away or threw away most of the rest of the stuff," says Tina. "Over the course of those two or three years, when they were hurting for money, you'd think that they would've sold that stuff instead of paying to store it."

But when it comes to material possessions, David Fleming says, the ties that bind can be stronger than logic--particularly when the owner is under stress. At 34, Fleming is the closest thing you'll find to a self-storage sociologist. Named manager of the year by two different trade publications (once in 1998 and again, with wife Tina, as co-managers of the year in 2000), Fleming--with his booming voice and brown flattop--is regularly invited to speak to other managers and writes a column for Inside Self-Storage, an industry trade magazine."They call self-storage managers 'bartenders without a shot glass' because you're dealing with people and their issues," he says, surveying the Inside Self-Storage Expo floor in Las Vegas. "You're not only a storage counselor, but you're a psychological counselor. Sometimes you learn more about people than you want."

The Flemings and others in the self-storage business have ringside seats to what some consider a telling--and troubling--cultural pathology. The symptoms aren't hard to spot in these uncertain times. Drive a 10-mile freeway stretch and you'll likely be able to count at least a handful of self-storage facilities discreetly tucked away. There are, for example, at least six facilities visible from the 101 Freeway between Thousand Oaks and Woodland Hills. About 1,400 of the estimated 31,000 self-storage facilities in the United States are in Southern California, with each area facility averaging 55,000 square feet.

The phenomenal popularity of EBay is fueled in part by those obsessed with collecting everything from Disney ceramic bells to Tiger Woods Wheaties boxes, then trying to sell it to others with the same acquisitive impulse. A recent visit to EBay's "collectibles" category found 1,562,773 items offered. Given the tendencies of the sellers, it's not hard to imagine them doing a little compulsive shopping while they're online checking the latest bids. One suspects they're the same people fueling the scrapbook craze.

Russell Belk, a professor at the University of Utah who studies possessiveness and materialism, says that our impulse to acquire and keep things serves a function. "Our possessions remind us of who we are," he says.

Much of the research about that impulse focuses on the homeless. "Oftentimes what they carry around [isn't] just found objects, but things from when they sort of gradually went from a big house full of possessions to a handbag or cart of possessions," Belk says. "Holding on to things is, in a sense, holding on to our past lives and some of our dignity." Sometimes, as with the Queen Anne Chair Couple or the Glider Family, it's even a hope that things will get better. Stored stuff becomes life's place-holder--we may be down at the moment, but someday we'll have a proper place for it all.

Some say the self-storage boom parallels the widespread erosion of our sense of well-being. "When people are under stress and trauma, at least in our culture, the last thing they want to do is get rid of their stuff," says Tim Kassar, an associate professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., and author of "The High Price of Materialism (MIT Press, 2002). "Their stuff provides that sort of security blanket and also a sense of identity, for better or worse. Mostly for worse, from my viewpoint."

Kassar and other researchers have found that there are four basic psychological needs we must satisfy in order to be happy, and they have little to do with anything that can be pasted down or warehoused in a 10-by-10 storage unit: security, community, competence and free will. He compares America's bloated self-storage facilities to the alarming epidemic of obesity.

"The food pyramid says, basically, you need to eat a lot of grains and fruits and vegetables, and that you should use fats and oils sparingly," Kassar says. "Really, what we most need to value and concentrate on in our lives is growing as people, feeling connected to other people, feeling connected to our community. Those are the grains and fruits and vegetables of life in terms of providing us with health." Just as the supersized American diet has left many of us chronically overweight, he says, materialism has led us to that moment of clarity when we realize, perhaps too late, that we're uncomfortably full.

Nobody really wants to rent storage space. that's the first thing David Fleming tells new managers. People typically rent out of desperation. Loss of a home or forced downsizing are typical reasons he gets business. Divorce and a death in the family bring in others. All managers quickly learn the business of storage serves as a barometer of the local community, and of society in general.

For example, Fleming notes that managers near military bases were aware of recent troop deployments before they were announced because of the number of soldiers and military families making arrangements to stow their possessions. They're aware of layoffs, housing shortages and increased foreclosures, as well as social ills such as domestic abuse and divorce.

"We have an increasingly mobile society with increasingly complicated issues--due to technology, due to relocation, due to the family structures breaking down," says Fleming. "It means self-storage will always be exciting." And in demand. Consider this: The industry has existed for roughly 30 years, and there now are more than four square feet of self-storage space for every man, woman and child in the United States.

Pamela Alton, a petite redhead, thanks our messy lives for her Santa Barbara home, new Jaguar and the constant ringing of her phone. Twelve years ago Alton was a floundering Orange County realtor. "Real estate in the late '80s was really bad. I was working the phones and my husband calls and says he saw an ad for a [self-storage] relief manager in Buena Park." The couple knew nothing about storage but answered the ad out of desperation. They were hired as part-time managers. By 1991 they were full-time managers for a facility in Santa Barbara, where they received a $1,500 monthly salary, medical benefits and a rent-free, two-bedroom apartment adjacent to the office. They took Pamela's real estate sales and marketing techniques, applied them to self-storage and filled the facility to capacity within a month. "Nobody was doing that. The industry was in its infancy and still is in many ways," says Pamela.

Alton's husband died in April but she continues to operate Santa Barbara-based Mini-Management Services, a self-storage consulting and headhunting firm that helps place managers at facilities nationwide. "Managers are in a unique position," Pamela says between cell phone calls. "They see this thing people have with their stuff. They want their things and can't let go of them, but if you looked at what most people store, you'd find that it's mostly junk."

Not that this troubles her. Alton has developed an interesting philosophy on self-storage. Who isn't in the business of storage? Vons warehouses our food, Chevron keeps our fuel and Target stores everything under the sun, she explains. The self-storage unit, though, is the last stop in the chain. She adds with a smile: "The only competition self-storage facilities have is the Dumpster."

While he was manager of Airport Self Storage in Newport Beach, Tony DeMauro painted the bathroom lavender, piped in Three Tenors music and tried to evoke a homey feel by placing ceramic pots of bamboo arrangements around the facility. He was a psychotherapist for a decade before getting into the self-storage business, and he understands the need to put stressed customers at ease. He does everything he can to downplay the gates, locks and inevitable Hannibal Lechter vibe at most self-storage facilities, and explains the business of storage as one of dreams delayed.

"As Americans we learn to pursue material goods as a way to happiness," he says. If we lose our stuff--even if it's an old blender, he says, many of us believe we're somehow diminished. All of this we could have learned from Steve Martin's 1979 comedy "The Jerk." When Martin's character Navin and co-star Bernadette Peters lose their fortune, she whines: "I don't care about losing all the money, it's losing all the stuuuuuuffff." He tells her, "We're not going to lose all the stuff. This is America!"

In the business of storing all that stuff, the Flemings often find themselves playing good cop/bad cop. Tina handles the shell-shocked customers: those sick from grief and hard luck--perhaps sporting telltale signs of domestic disputes--who are desperate and grateful for a place to park their stuff. David handles the ones who are ticked off because of foreclosures, or because their soon-to-be-ex has given them the boot, or because life has otherwise delayed their dreams.

Either way, most of their customers have something in common: They're in transition. That's something the Flemings and other managers can relate to. In the past 12 years, David, Tina and their two children have moved seven times. Until David's recent promotion to director of operations for North State Storage in Durham, N.C., the couple have always been employed as on-site co-managers. For four years--their longest stay anywhere--the family lived in a 900-square-foot apartment above a facility in Buffalo, N.Y. And they're not unusual.

As the self-storage industry continues to grow, the demand for on-site managers has too, according to Pamela Alton. Because job vacancies are plentiful, many managers wind up moving in search of better pay or more desirable situations. What happens when you uproot yourself often?

"One of the things we've learned is that there are a lot of things that you really don't need in this world," says David Fleming. "Every time we move it gets easier."

He understands the essential truth in the proliferation of professional life organizers, books on how to de-clutter and magazines that celebrate the joys of leading a simpler life. While occasionally leading to postpartum remorse, paring down also can be cathartic. According to Belk, it's a chance for an individual to reassert power over things -- things that may remind us of who we are, but which we sometimes let define who we are. He likens the choice of what to keep and what to throw away to assembling a family photo album. "It isn't a representative picture of a family at all," Belk says. "We take photos when everyone looks nice and the house looks nice. We throw out the shots where people's eyes are closed." Letting go of stuff is similar. When we winnow, we have the power to change, sometimes for the better.

Tina, once a pack-rat who couldn't part with her daughter's outgrown baby clothes, credits her customers with showing her the way to a lighter load.

"I watch people haul things in here all day. It's really made me sit back and look at my life and what possessions mean," Tina says. "It was a security issue for me that I held on to things from the past." She was afraid to let go of possessions because she thought--as Fromm suggested--that without her things she wouldn't have herself. Watching people carry in couches and blenders not worth the cost of storage, she realized how desperate and misplaced many of us are, looking for identity in furniture and kitchen appliances. There's no real security, she says, and if there's anything that comes close, it comes from within.

"When you're focused on material possessions, it either distracts you from real needs or it undermines them," says Kassar, the Knox College psychology professor. For example, if we invest time and energy into working long hours to acquire stuff, we have less of it to focus on building meaningful relationships. (We're also more likely to be competitive and objectify others as a way to get ahead and enhance status, according to researchers.) Kassar has found that children from divorce and lower socioeconomic backgrounds are generally more materialistic, and he believes that, as a society, we have learned to distract ourselves from feelings of insecurity with those Disney knickknacks, Wheaties boxes, clothes and cars.

"We live in a culture that says the main way to [feel secure] is to have more possessions," he says. "We're told over and over and over by the media and governments . . . that [more stuff] will make us satisfied, but, indeed, it fails to do that."

Tina Fleming learned the same lesson on the front lines of the self-storage boom, not through academic research.

"Now I have to bite my tongue with customers because I feel like saying, 'You know, you don't really need to carry your goods along with you.' " But it takes many people a lifetime to learn this. Or at least a few thousand dollars in storage fees.

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