The United States of Stuff

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The United States of Stuff

In "Self-Storage Nation" on, Tom Vanderbilt writes:
One in 11 American households, according to a recent survey, owns self-storage space — an increase of some 75 percent from 1995 ... Last year alone saw a 24 percent spike in the number of self-storage units on the market.

How did self storage, or "mini storage," as it's sometimes called, become such an enormous enterprise?

... One distinctly modern phenomenon that helps explain its recent rise is that many high-volume eBay sellers use self storage to house their goods; ironically, these people are sometimes selling goods auctioned off from self-storage units whose owners failed to keep up on the rent.

... Another obvious suspect ... is American consumerism. No other country in the world spends as much on consumer goods.

As Morgan Stanley notes, in just one telling index, "Over the 1996 to 2004 period, annual growth in US personal consumption expenditures averaged 3.9% — nearly double the 2.2% pace recorded elsewhere in the so-called advanced world." The real prices of many consumer goods are as much as 50 percent less than they were a century ago. It's never been so easy for so many to amass so many consumer products.

... But living in a land of wants, not needs, creates its own dilemmas, as evidenced by the concurrent rise of stores like Hold Everything and the Container Store — stuff to hold stuff.

... In the last year, scanning the newspapers, one can find instances in which self-storage units were found to contain: a corpse (more than once); lye, ammonia, and the other detritus of a meth lab; two girls, age four and five, playing inside a padlocked unit to which they, along with their mother, had made their residence as of a week before; the cameras and photographs of a child pornographer; and the "office" of a self-proclaimed gynecologist who in fact had no medical degree.

Both Timothy McVeigh and Ramsi Yousef stored chemicals in self-storage units, and in 2003 the Department of Homeland Security issued guidance on how storage operators can spot potential terrorists.

... In Topeka, Kan., the "coolest new building" in town, according to one critic, is Flex Storage Systems, a well-lit, natural-wood-accented structure that seems capable, if nothing else, of making self storage safe for the Dwell generation.
Mind you, we're talking about the "coolest new building" in Topeka — that's Wichita without the glitter and the home of Fred Phelps, grand-poopah of homophobes. I suspect this is somewhat like identifying the best beach in Bismarck, N.D.

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