Last week, I was flipping TV Channels when I happened upon , ” Storage Wars ” on A&E. I’d never heard of the show before and so, I settled down to watch some of it . For those of you who are unfamiliar with the show , it takes place in Southern California and is based on the fact that if the dues on storage lockers are not paid for three months then the lockers can be opened and the contents auctioned off. The TV show follows the fortunes of four men who make their living, bidding for the contents of such lockers and selling it to antique stores , to collectors or to consignment stores.It is an odd premise for a TV show but, surprisingly, it seems to have worked. About 3 million people viewed it regularly last season and this has resulted in a spin-off, ” Storage Wars : Texas” which is due to début this week.
The format is like this : After the lock is cut through , the door is raised and prospective buyers are given 5 minutes to inspect the contents . They may not enter the locker and they may not touch the goods . Their bids are based on what they can deduce from their brief peek at the contents . As you can imagine , what they bid is in the nature of an educated guess since most of the contents are either boxed or hidden from sight . The bids are generally in the neighborhood of $ 600 to $1,000 though sometimes they can go as low as $100 or as high as $ 3,500. For viewers, the fun is in seeing the clash of personalities between the four men and in trying to figure out whether they will be able to turn a profit on a particular transaction. We follow them right from the beginning , from the moment the locks are cut , through the auction to their attempts to get their finds appraised.At show’s end , we are told what each of them made or lost that particular day.
But this is not about the show ; it’s about the contents of those lockers and what it says about us .
The first thing that surprised me is that most of the stored items are junk. The second is that the items are stored higgledy-piggledy , the junk mixed in with the valuable . Much of the stored stuff consists of things that have no particular reason for being saved from the junk pile. There are old headboards, matresses, sofas , stereos , boxes of toys , old shoes , posters , DVDs . (Why would anybody want to keep this stuff ? After all , there is a monthly fee for the usage of the storage lockers .I’ve no idea what the buyers do with the junk items ; probably they haul it away to the municipal dump.)
For the buyers , rooting through these mountains of junk, looking for something that will enable them to earn back their outlay , is in the nature of a treasure hunt. They never know what they are going to find mixed in with the trash. In one case , “Barry” found an antique Stradivarius violin. Antonio Stradivari was the most famous violin maker of all time and his violins are masterpieces of the violin-maker’s craft , selling for hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars when they come on the market. Barry had visions of retiring to Florida but , unfortunately for him , the violin was a children’s model , even though a Strad, and it turned out to be worth only $275.In another case , canvas paintings advertising the attractions at a long ago carnival , fetched him a princely $ 3,000. One of the other buyers unearthed an old Wanted poster of Pablo Escobar , the Colombian drug kingpin who was killed in an assault by the Colombian army in the mid nineties. The poster turned out to be worth $ 30. So, the third thing that surprised me was the things that people find worth collecting and the amounts they are willing to pay for such items. What is so great about an old Wanted poster of Pablo Escobar and what could you possibly want it for ?
My main interest , however, is in what people consider worth hanging on to. Why do we collect so much junk ? ( I’m a fine one to talk , seeing that , though I don’t have a storage locker, my garage is full of stuff . In my defense I will plead that more than half of it belongs to my adult children who have stored it with me .) I think that , a good part of the reason is that we can’t bear to throw it away.Even when we know that something is never going to be used again , we hang on to it for sentimental reasons . I know , it is that way for me ,with books . With books , there is a certain pleasure in seeing them, handling them and knowing that they are mine ,even if I may never read them again. These feelings show no signs of diminishing even though I am gradually , almost imperceptibly switching over to reading things on-line .
Why do we gather so much stuff ? Neither my wife have ever been into shopping and yet our house is full, overfull in fact. Is it because we have large houses ( compared to the rest of the world) and feel compelled to fill them up? Is it that, in accumulating these things , we somehow feel a sense of security? As a good friend of mine once told me ” My house is full of things which have no meaning to anyone else except me . I started to throw some of them out but then I said ” The hell with it “. One of these days when I am gone , my kids will come in , hire a trash container and throw it all away. ”
We know this couple who used to have a beautiful house in Austin , Texas. The wife told me how she kept her house so spick and span. Everything is arranged in orderly fashion within cabinets but anything else is likely to be thrown out . Newspapers and magazines for instance are thrown out immediately a new issue is received . That’s something I could never do. I have a pile of newspaper clippings dating back to the 1980’s and my garage has three years worth of my son’s New Yorker magazines . Lately I’ve started getting the Economist. I know I should be throwing all the old issues out but I can’t bring myself to do it . I’ll leave that to somebody else.