"When you know a thing, to hold that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to allow that you do not know it—this is knowledge." (from The Analects of Confucius)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Stuff: What's It Good For?

I am what could be called stuff-challenged. Or rather, my living space is. It can’t really take on a lot more stuff than what’s already here. And that means that over the course of the few years I’ve lived here, I haven’t been able to accumulate a lot … of stuff.

My building doesn’t provide storage spaces for those “extra” things that we like to keep around, those things we don’t access daily – or even monthly for that matter – but apparently can’t bear to part with. For the typical household, basements, attics, and garages work great for stuff. Now, to specify what I mean by stuff would detract from the thrust of a perfectly appropriate word. When I say “stuff,” you know what I’m talking about.

(Actually, I would be embarrassingly remiss if I didn’t point out that no one explained “stuff” better than George Carlin.)

There’s another place our stuff can go – self storage units.

You probably drive by one of the 50,000 such facilities in the U.S. all the time. Or you’ve got stuff in one right now. According to the Self Storage Association, a national organization serving the self storage industry, 2009 sales exceeded $22 billion. Approximately 10% of American households currently have possessions in self storage units, which comprise 2.2 billion square feet of rentable storage space. And the industry pays more than $3 billion each year in local property taxes.

 A storage unit site in Lexington, TN (AAA Safe Storage)
Let me break those numbers down a bit into understandable English: We like to have a lot of stuff. More stuff than we can fit in our homes. Or via negativa: We don’t like to part with our stuff, regardless of how much space it takes up.

But occasionally people do part with their storage unit stuff. Or just abandon it.

A recent This American Life story got me thinking about these storage units and turned me on to the SSA statistics. “Needle in a Crapstack” doesn’t focus on the industry per se but an ancillary business – and small subculture – that has emerged from the heaped and boxed stuff stashed in those units. When the rent isn’t paid and the stuff sits and sits, one possible outcome is that it gets auctioned off.  

An hour outside of San Francisco, writer Jon Mooallem shadows savvy and not-so-savvy buyers as they follow an auctioneer from a company called Storage Auction Experts. A unit door slides up and people begin making mental tabulations of all that’s immediately visible. No one is allowed in the unit. They have to make the best of it with craning necks, little step stools, and flashlights. People bid and hope that their discerning eyes and intuitions will lead to small fortunes. Or at least a little profit. Even just outside dark, cobwebby storage units, hope springs eternal.

Maybe someday when I’m really living the American Dream, I can acquire so much that I, too, will have to rent a place just to store my stuff. Hmm. I’m picturing my own storage unit right now. It’s beautiful. Just look at all that stuff I’ll never use.

In fairness, there really are some legitimate uses for self storage units – people in transition from one place to another, people away on extended visits. They need a holding place for their personal possessions. Totally understandable. And military families – highly valued by the self storage industry – are frequent customers for obvious reasons. But almost 11 million households needing to rent storage space for their stuff? Come on, not all of them are on sabbatical in Tuscany or serving their country, are they?

I’d like to say that my more simply lived lifestyle – if that’s even what one could call it – is a conscious demonstration of virtues I hold dear. That would be a gross exaggeration. Frugality? Maybe in a haphazard, inconsistent, and not fully intentional way. Fear of commitment to home buying (fear of commitment period)? Ah, now we’re getting somewhere.

Do I hold good ol’ HD Thoreau’s “Give me that poverty that knows true wealth” dear to my heart? Such a bold, inspiring dictum. Alas, no. In my living space, as wanting as some would deem it, I have experienced neither poverty nor, I suppose, true wealth. But I have, however, on rare occasions of clarity, been struck by the sheer and undeserved plentitude that I really do live in. Now that’s the stuff.