Bids on Lives Left Behind

Times Staff Writer

The auction regulars arrive early in the morning, prepared for a day of bidding mostly on stuff they cannot see.

Some carry cups of coffee. One woman snuggles her pet Chihuahua under her coat.

Today could be the day they find treasure. Bidders have been known to snag diamonds. Rolex watches. Even the diaries of Paris Hilton.

But this is far from the rarefied formalities of Sotheby's or Christie's. It's a wind-swept self-storage facility near the end of a runway at the Riverside Municipal Airport.

During the last two decades, self-storage facilities like Airport Mini Storage have sprouted across the American landscape -- along freeways, under high-power electric lines, on land that could be used for little else. The self-storage business is booming thanks to a nation of pack rats who cling to such things as 8-track tapes and pants with waist sizes long surpassed.

But many renters lose their belongings when they cannot pay their bills. Or when they die. That has bred a little-known offshoot industry: legions of self-described recyclers who earn a living buying entire storage units at auctions, then peddling their bounty at flea markets, garage sales and on EBay.

Making money off of another person's misfortune requires a sharp eye for clues, some luck and a bit of stoicism when coming across the broken pieces of other people's lives.

"Sometimes you get a whole story out of someone's life," said Greg Daniels, among 30 bidders at the Riverside facility. "First you get the wedding pictures. Then you get the divorce papers. Then the drug paraphernalia, the letters from jail.

"You get the whole sad story."

Last Resort

Heartbreak is what auctioneer Michael Joyce often encounters when he cuts the wire seal off storage units.

At Airport Mini Storage, the doors roll up and there are toys, tools, sofas and other artifacts of lives lived elsewhere. Bidders file past quickly in a procession that resembles a funeral viewing. But there is little time for sentimentality. The mood is businesslike.

The door goes up on a large unit containing 13 used washing machines and four refrigerators.

"All guaranteed to work," cries out one bidder, sarcasm dripping.

"Scrap metal," yells another.

It goes for $30.

Joyce generally begins the bidding at $50. But he has enough experience to start at $200 or into four figures if he senses that the bidders are interested in the goods.

Joyce's biggest sale was on two units in Los Angeles several months ago that went for $26,000. They had been rented by a video production company and were full of editing and other video equipment.

Joyce, 55, is a trim, carefully coifed man who zooms from auction to auction on a Honda Gold Wing touring motorcycle, his briefcase bungeed to the passenger seat. Most transactions -- from opening the door to "sold!" -- last less than five minutes. Some take mere seconds. He gets 15% to 30% of all sales.

With its transient and propertied population, Southern California is the capital of the U.S. self-storage business, which boasts 45,000 facilities.

Facilities hold auctions every couple of months to clear out deadbeats and make way for paying customers. But it's a last resort, said Kim Devore, regional manager of the chain that owns Airport Mini Storage, which has 1,078 units.

"We usually get pennies on the dollar at an auction," Devore said.

Scouting Locations

Auction regulars daily scour Internet sites for upcoming sales. Perhaps the most calculating bidder at the Riverside facility is Dolores Herrera, 38, of nearby Rubidoux.

She attends about three auctions a week, choosing her venues carefully.

"I like to go to developing areas," said Herrera, who is raising two daughters and has little extra money. "That's where people are putting their stuff, good stuff, in storage while preparing to buy property."

Herrera knows that they might run into financial trouble and have to leave their stored stuff behind.

She also favors Sun City and other areas with sizable populations of elderly people. Herrera regularly checks newspaper obituaries. "That's where you find people who have passed on and left antiques," she said.

But all her calculation could come to naught when the door goes up and the goods are shrouded in the staple of the storage industry: cardboard boxes.

Joyce does not permit bidders to enter a storage unit -- not even an inch -- because the contents legally belong to the renter until sold.

They must stand at the door and look, using flashlights to get a better view of whatever is visible. And they can't reach in to touch anything.

Herrera has a few tricks. From the doorway, unit No. 7304 reveals little. There are a few stacked books covered with dust, including "Expository Dictionary of Bible Words." She focuses on several closed boxes -- one labeled "Mikasa" and another marked "French Fries From Potatoes."

But Herrera sees more. "What got me interested was that everything was neatly stacked," she said. "The person was very conscientious about the way they kept things."

Herrera got the unit for $95.

The Mikasa box is a score. It contains 60 comic books, including some from the 1960s priced on EBay at $20 apiece.

Behind the boxes, she finds women's clothing, a foot massage machine and several pairs of size 8 shoes.

"That's my size," Herrera said. "I'm keeping them. I have a whole new ensemble."

Finds like these help counter the many times when a promising box ends up holding inexplicable junk.

One bidder, Diane Wedge, once bought a unit because it contained several new, plastic storage tubs. Opening them up, she found stacks of dirty dishes.

"Maybe," she said, "they had to pack up in a hurry."

Finding Riches

Professional bidders are gamblers. They live for the jackpot.

Many of them tell about someone who found something of great value boxed up or hidden in a unit. There is the story of the $1 million found in a musical instrument case, $250,000 stashed in a small safe and various jewelry finds.

Those finds always involve someone else because, as Joyce says, if anyone admits to finding riches, the Internal Revenue Service and the police might pounce.

But auctioneer Dan Dotson of Yucaipa says he sold a unit for $300 to a man who found a rear fender part for a classic Shelby Mustang that was worth $16,000. And he knows a couple who found two Rolexes, worth about $17,000, in a unit that cost $80.

"Every once in a while someone comes around wearing a nice diamond ring or they will show you a watch that had been found," Dotson said. "It gives everybody hope."

Then there were the dead bodies.

In 1994, Ed Zaharoff won the contents of a unit at a Northridge facility -- including a couple of steamer trunks and a large box sealed with duct tape -- with a bid of $2,300. After loading the stuff into his van, he used a box cutter to slice open the carton.

A foul odor seeped out. The police were called. Three bodies, apparently stored in the unit for about a year, were recovered.

"I got a full refund," Zaharoff said.

Since then bodies have been found -- also packed in tape-sealed boxes -- by bidders who won auctions in Upland and Daly City, Calif.

Less rare is the type of find made about five years ago by Tony Dee, 63, who stands out at storage auctions with his pointed white beard.

"It was a nice-looking brass box, a little bigger than a cigar box," Dee said. "I turned it over and there was a name."

Dee was holding cremated remains. The manager of the storage facility refused to take the box so Dee left it at a nearby church.

A true treasure -- in monetary terms -- was found by an anonymous bidder who paid about $2,700 for a Los Angeles unit that belonged to hotel heiress and tabloid headliner Paris Hilton. Her handlers apparently forgot to pay the rent. A Hilton spokesman blamed it on a "bureaucratic foul-up."

The contents ended up in the hands of a celebrity memorabilia dealer who is now asking $20 million. He says the goods include racy photos and Hilton's personal diaries. So far no deal.

Returning Keepsakes

Behind every winning bid, there is a loser -- or a sad story.

At an Extra Space Storage facility in San Bernardino late in the day, Joyce rolled up a door to reveal a mattress covered by a sheet and green blanket. Someone had been living there.

"What do I hear for the condo?" Joyce asked with gusto as he opened the bidding.

Used mattresses cannot be legally resold. But Sandra Fair, who lives in San Jacinto, was willing to pay as much as $50 because of several items she spotted stacked around the bed, including a large, child's truck.

"Toys sell," she said.

Nicole Parker, 28, lost toys she had bought for her daughter -- as well as keepsakes -- when her Culver City storage unit was sold off while she was in the hospital.

"I will cry if I talk about it," Parker said.

She tried to reach the buyer through the auctioneer to see whether the personal effects could be returned, but she was told they had already been disposed of.

"I just wanted my pictures of my daughter," Parker said. "I can take more, but you can't replace pictures of her first steps."

Herrera says she doesn't think it's her responsibility to try to contact the former owners of the units she wins at auction.

But she can understand Parker's feelings. Two years ago, when she was struggling to make ends meet, Herrera lost her own storage unit. It contained pictures of her daughters and their school awards.

Herrera knew the drill. She sent a friend to bid as much as $200 at the auction.

But it went for more. She approached the buyer herself and asked if she could have the keepsakes.

The buyer wanted a large sum for the items. Herrera instead traded several pieces of furniture and a handmade wedding dress bought at other auctions.

Since then, Herrera admits to being unnerved that she is sometimes buying episodes from someone's life.

"Sometimes after I win an auction, I look around," she said, "to see if they are waiting. Looking at me."

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