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One man’s trash

by Brian Clarey

Sam Buck (top) and his guys once found jewelry in the pockets of a pile of worthless clothes. Vince Pitti (bottom) splits his haul between eBay and regular retail. photos by Brian Clarey and Christian Bryant

Ray has done this a million times, or so it seems to him.

“I’ve lost the curiosity factor,” he says from the office of Ray Self Storage on High Point Road in Greensboro as he jingles his keys and tucks his clipboard under his arm. Together we ride out to the storage units on this large plot of land, armed with a cluster of red padlocks and a 42-inch bolt-cutter, and he gives me the backstory.

It started with his great-grandfather, who used to haul furniture around these parts by horse and buggy. People didn’t move as much back then, but by the time Ray’s father had the reins of the business it was a full-fledged moving company, with a warehouse and a fleet of trucks.

“Self-storage started in the late ’60s,” Ray says, “though somebody might be able to prove different. Around here it got

its start in the early ’70s.” nest-emptyings and good, old-fashioned hoards are the bread He knows this for certain, because that’s when his father, and butter of the self-storage business, and the units at Ray’s who had been thinking about expanding into that end of the Self Storage are full of these offerings. business, saw that one had opened in Greensboro and said to But what happens when the need to hold on to our stuff is him, “Dang, I missed the boat.” outweighed by more pressing financial needs?

“Now there’s one on every corner,” Ray says today. “If the budget gets tight,” Ray says, “one of the first things to It’s pretty straightforward, as business models go. go is the storage bill.”

People love stuff, and they spend a goodly amount of time And when the bills go too deeply into arrears, Ray does what coveting and then accumulating it. They become so attached to we’re doing today: cuts the locks on the bins and prepares to their stuff that, even when they have no place to put it, they still auction off the contents, sold as lots. want to keep it. And frankly, he says, he’d rather the customers pay their That’s when they call someone like Ray and arrange for a bills. He says he can maybe auction off the stuff for, on aver- small — or a large — unit, somewhere to put all this stuff until age, 10 to 20 percent of what’s owed, plus he’ll lose a customer. it’s needed again. “We’re not in the business of selling stuff,” he says. “We’re Weddings, divorces, downsizings, foreclosures, evictions, in the business of storing stuff.”

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Al Ray has lost the curiosity factor.

So he gives the customer every chance to come in and pay up — phone calls and letters, a mandatory waiting period and a public notice published in a newspaper, all mandated by law — before popping the lock and selling the stuff at public auction.

Out on the lot, Ray approaches unit H-15, double-checks his clipboard to make sure he’s got the right one, and hefts the bolt-cutters into place. He’s got a video camera running for documentation, and now he looks into it, says the name of his business, the date and the unit he is about to open.

Then he cuts the lock with a grunt, slides open the door to expose the 10-by-10 space and makes a quick list of its contents.

Yoga mat. Paint cans.

Magazine rack. Rake. A pair of director’s chairs. Carpet shampooer. Laundry basket filled with Mardi Gras beads, fake flowers and a blue ribbon issued by Sedgefield Elementary School. An old first-aid kit. A bed frame. A lamp with no shade. Blankets in boxes, Shelving.

Luggage. A card table. A firstplace trophy from a pageant held in 2002.

He surveys the goods from the outside of the bin — by law he’s not allowed to go through the stuff and pull out the valuables. Which is fine by Ray, because he’s pretty sure there’s nothing valuable in this one, anyway. He’s pretty sure there’s nothing valuable in any of them, and even if there was, he doesn’t really care. He’s lost the curiosity factor. And on this excursion through the storage units, where he’ll cut four more locks off unpaid units in preparation for next week’s auction, he displays consistent dispassion for the stored goods.

“It’s probably just a bunch of junk,” he says.

But one man’s trash is, of course, another man’s treasure.

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On auction day, Vince Pitti of Gibsonville futzes around the office at Ray Self Storage in a faded hoodie and Velcro-strapped shoes, waiting for the action to begin. He’s a veteran of six years in the business, a business that, he says, doesn’t really have a name.

“We dig for treasure, I guess,” he says. He hits auctions during the week, then splits up the booty between eBay auctions and straight-up retail. He donates what’s left over to Goodwill.

Jerry Stevens says he’s a been regular at these auctions for 10 years. He resells the stuff every weekend at a recurring yard sale he holds at his Greensboro home.

Sam Buck, who claims everything he’s wearing today, including his sharp, black Jack Daniels NASCAR jacket, has come from stor age

auctions. Today he’s looking top stock up for his store in Rockingham, Connie’s Everyday Furniture.

“My business is starting to pick up because of them tax checks coming in,” he says. “Then before you know it, it will just stop again.”

Now he’s telling a story about a score earlier in the week, a lot that initially looked promising but then turned out to be bunk — until he and his guys started finding jewelry in the pockets of the clothes. He won’t say exactly how much profit he made on that one, but he will talk numbers on a purchase a few years ago, $1 for what looked like a pile of wood.

“There was this hand-etched glass in it,” he recalls, “and when we put it together we saw it was a German Shrunk wall unit,” a collector’s piece, he says, that eventually fetched $600.

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Some found treasures found on display at Connie’s Everyday Furniture in Rockingham.

All the seasoned guys have stories like this: a 1957 hand-cranked sewing machine that went for $250, the cash found stuffed in mattresses and sofas, the vintage couture and valuable artwork and pricey antiques.

But most of it, Buck says, is actual junk — unwearable clothes, couches devoid of cush- ions, ruined books and magazines, personal items like awards and photos that have no value except to their original owners. He says he’s even found dirty diapers and plates with food still on them.

“I’d say it’s 80 percent trash, and 20 percent good stuff, on average,” he says. “It’s not like on the TV show — this ain’t California.

Welcome to the real world.”

Today Buck is looking to restock.

Of the eight units initially slated for the auction block, five of them have been brought current, which means the stuff is safe… for now.

But even three units can draw a crowd these days, especially, Ray says, after the A&E network television show “Storage Wars” premiered last year.

The reality show follows four teams of buyers as they cruise storage auctions in California and documents the profits they make, and its popularity has swelled the ranks at auctions like this all across the country.

And they’re trickling in today — 10 of them, a dozen, 20, then 29. By 10 a.m., the time the auction is set to begin, there are 34 folks waiting to bid on the first lot.

“Obviously people have been watching TV,” Ray says. “This is a big crowd.”

They huddle around unit F-9, the first one on the block today, and when Ray slides the door open they looked with practiced eyes, conspire in hushed tones.

He open the bidding at $50, Buck takes it, and then we’re off in a bidding war between Buck and a few of the folks he’s labeled as newcomers to the business. It goes to $60, then $100, $110, in 10-dollar increments up to $200 and on. A third bidder jumps in at $270, and then another at $300, but Buck holds steady and when the smoke clears he’s bagged the unit’s contents for $360.

As the group moves on to the next lot, he explains his purchase.

“I figure I can get $200 for the living room suite, another $100 for the bedroom suite, maybe $75 for the other furniture. It was a gamble,” he says, “but I didn’t want any of these new people to get it. This is what I do for a living. I don’t do this for extra money.”

Buck also outbids the other contenders for the other unit up for auction here today, a scattering of boxes and packed luggage in a small closet; it’s his for $45. The last lot, a locker with a few more pieces of stuffed luggage, goes to another for $100. And then they travel as a pack to Burlington for another round.

If he spot-cleans the love seat, Buck figures, he can get $50 for it, and another $35 for the nightstand. They go into the truck. He’s spent $50 already for gas, and labor will run another $150. He’s constantly running the numbers as he and his guys unload unit

F-9, box by box, piece by piece. “Some of this stuff you can throw right away,” he says. But here’s a chef’s kitchen knife that will surely do someone some good, a stethoscope for which he says he can get $10 and a bag of clothes, laundered and folded.

“They’re nice and clean,” Buck says, “and in our area there are so many folks who can’t regularly afford stuff like this — these are Polo jeans. I’ll sell ’em for a buck.”

There are piles of folded surgical scrubs that he says are in demand at his store, a foot bath that will go for $2 if it works, a George Foreman Grill that Buck says is one of the most common items found in these bins.

“I sell ’em for $5,” he says. And then there’s the matter of this black table that, if he cleans it up a bit, could get $75, though he says he’ll most likely leave it as is and try to get $50 or $60.

“I want to go for the fast nickel instead of the slow dollar,” he says.

But the washer and dryer bear closer inspection. Those he’ll tune up in the small workshop at his place in Rockingham, restore them to full use and get $100 to $125 per.

“That’s $225 of my $360 right there,” he says. And if they are beyond repair, he says he’ll pull the copper parts and sell everything for scrap.

“I would say that at $360, just what I can see here,” he says, “I’ll get my money back and then some. It’s just gonna take a while for it to turn.”

It’s not always like this, he adds. “If you’re in this business and you say you’ve never been burned, you’re not buying enough.”

Now in the city of Rockingham, nearly 100 miles south of Greensboro, Sam Buck’s people unload the truck from another score, an auction in High Point that netted eight of the 10 units for sale. He’s been away from the store, Connie’s Everyday Furniture, for 10 days while taking an auctioneering course at the Mendenhall School of Auctioneering in High Point, which is part of his plan for the next phase of the business.

Connie was his mother, who started it all with a small gift shop she made in the glassed in

Florida room at the front of the family home. The house still stands at the front of the property here, though the Florida room is long gone.

“This was my mom’s vision,” Buck says.

“She had no idea it would get to this size.”

Now four other buildings stand on this twoacre plot on the highway: a long storage shed that runs the length, a warehouse way in the back and two conjoined structures that comprise the retail store up front.

Racks of clothes starting at a dollar, rows of housewares, slats of framed artwork, shelves of books, piles of toys. To the rear is a furniture showroom with sectionals, suites, full bedrooms and pieces cobbled together from other pieces, like the bench made from a desk and a headboard.

“I got these new leather couches, 300 bucks,” he says with a gesture. “You can’t buy that anywhere for that.”

Walking through the trove, he shows the treasures: hand-blown glass vessels and vases, a few pieces of high-end costume jewelry, a piece of McCoy pottery — highly collectible, an amethyst inkwell missing the pen.

“See how it looks black?” he says. “You hold it up to the light and it looks purple. That’s how you can tell it’s amethyst.”

There are other valuable — or, at least, interesting — items: a child’s vintage Firestone bicycle, in need of some repair, and a Honda three-wheel Kick-N-Go scooter, which could fetch $200 were it in working condition, a gooseneck rocking chair with arms carved to resemble the bird’s neck and beak, a 1931 Magic Chef gas stove with a sign on it reading “$350 or best offer.” He says he once found a book autographed by President Gerald Ford that sold for almost $400.

It’s a junkman’s delight, this mass offering of castaway treasures, and Buck admits it’s sometimes hard to leave things here in the shop instead of taking them to his home.

“[The house] is not too bad,” he says, “but we’re at the point where if you take something home, you gotta bring something back.”

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