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Mining storage unit treasures
Bidders flock to buy items after tenants fail to pay rent
The locker door is up revealing its contents for bidders. - photo by HIME ROMERO
You could tell right off the bat that the people who showed up at Stuff and Storage’s public auction Friday weren’t playing around.

After turning on to Vanderbilt Circle in the Manteca Industrial Park, I found a spot right behind a person who had brought an empty trailer. They obviously were planning on loading up on whatever was inside one of the four units up for bid to vacate non-paying tenants.

Roughly half of the people who assembled near the front office – a group that appeared to be mostly out-of-towners according to the sign-in sheet – were holding flashlights to make sure that darkness didn’t obscure their view of the unclaimed goodies.

Virtually every week one of the nearly dozen self-storage operations in Manteca, Lathrop and Ripon conduct public auctions after those renting the spaces have failed to pay after a set number of months. The auctions are advertised in legal notices in the Manteca Bulletin. Originally, the contents of nine storage sheds were going to go to the highest bidder but the owners of contents of five of the units were able to square their debt in time to avoid their stuff being sold.

Every month there are 80 such auctions in California. There are 9,000 auctions in a year at the state’s 2,900 self-storage facilities.

The mood among the two-dozen people who had assembled Friday morning was light and friendly, and you could tell that some of those who showed up weren’t exactly entering their first rodeo – prompting a round of cheers from some waiting friends who were already holding their flashlights.

But when auctioneer Joe Ward finally stepped out of the office, everything changed.

It was now every man for himself in the search for boxed treasure.

First up was a 5-foot by 10-foot unit that wasn’t exactly in the best shape – holding only various boxes as well as an out-of-place cowhide near the front door – and the majority of those who walked by for a view seemed unimpressed.

Bidding started at only $1, and while those in attendance seemed eager to go home with something, it wasn’t going to be confines of what was in this dusty unit.

It sold for $20.

Next up was a 10-foot by 15-foot unit around the corner that immediately drew in a crowd to mill over what appeared to be a stack of encyclopedias, a small couch, a television, and a complete dining set that looked like it was in immaculate condition.

While somewhat dated – with an errant lampshade sitting above a stack of boxes – whoever owned the unit obviously cared about what was inside.

So did the crowd outside.

With a $100 opening bid, the mood immediately got livelier as other bidders started weighing in on what could have been the gold mine – moving up in $50 increments to the final take-home price of $450.

Things were starting to heat up.

With the same sized unit making up the third installment on this little tour, Ward quickly backed away after rolling up the door and showing what obviously held the most items of worth that were stored in plain view – an Aquarian commercial refrigerator, a washing machine, a Comcast cable box.

A few bar stools and a complete bed set also lined the walls and graced the space above the stacks of boxes.

After a quick jump up to $300, three bidders went at it until they reached $575 – a bargain considering just the price of the commercial cooler that sit inside.

The winner happily signed his name on Ward’s list before everybody made the turn for the final unit.

Realizing that the people in attendance had different reasons for coming out, I stopped one lady to see what her interest was in milling through boxes that someone else obviously didn’t care about enough to claim or keep up on.

She admitted to me that this wasn’t the first that she’s attended, and that “making money” is one of the prime factors for the groups that form at these functions throughout Northern California.

Another man – who had been bantering with the auctioneer like they were old friends – told me that he loves collecting tools, and even though he has more than he could ever use thanks to a few good finds, he still comes out.

“It’s a social event as well,” Ed the retiree told me as we walked.

But when Ward rolled up the doors to the final unit, I actually froze a little bit – wanting to grab my phone and immediately call a friend in the construction business that would have easily been at the forefront of this auction.

Along one wall were a half-dozen brand new windows, and a myriad of front and inside doors lined the other wall with various construction implements strewn about.

A roll of insulation here. A few strips of nails over there.

While the group had died out by this time, the unit still fetched $575 with only the winners staying behind as everybody broke for home.

“You never know what you’re going to get when you come to one of these,” a man told me. “Sometimes you might find that one thing you can’t live without – other times you go home empty handed.

“It’s not knowing what’s in there that makes it interesting.”