For Collab21, we have been paying attention to the economic crisis and how it affects our chances to get space.
I have been noticing effects for my personal business as a book dealer. Poor spending affects sales, but certain titles suddenly come into demand with the day’s headlines. When people move and get rid of goods, it affects my sources for stock. Sometimes it makes good opportunities. I wouldn’t intentionally profit from desperation, but people move all the time and simply have too much stuff they don’t want. Processing it through the secondary market is a service that often counts as recycling.
With so much flux in housing, I figured today was a good day to check out a possible source I have heard of from other dealers- an abandoned storage auction.
The ad said something like this- “By official notice under the law: these properties are considered abandoned due to failure to pay rent, and will go up for auction. Owners can bid with the rest of the public, and ownership will pass to the winning bidder.” (List of properties and owner’s names). There were 10 storage units up for auction, plus a 4-unit lot holding the contents of an entire house. No owners came.
My destination was in the industrial area by Potrero Hill and Dogpatch. On friday nights, when I go south for fun, I often bike by there on the way to the Caltrain station. This storage place was a sprawled-out lot packed with shipping containers and prefab units, bordered by the overpass, paved over some train tracks.
I left an $80 deposit in the front office to get in- I guess that was to discourage frivolous bidders who didn’t really have money, and might wreck the contest.
This is the friendly auctioneer with his Harley jacket. He had the fast patter of a guy who really enjoys selling, and wants to encourage you to buy.
(Sorry for poor photo quality- I wasn’t expecting to blog this.)
This is how the auction goes: they crack open the door of the unit, and give everyone a quick look in from the doorway. It’s an 8 x 12 space. It might be packed to the ceiling with neatly boxed goods, it might be total chaos, or it might be nearly empty with a lonely pile of junk in the corner. You can’t go in or touch it. It’s as-is, WYSIWYG. That’s an ooooh moment. People love it- it’s like opening Al Capone’s secret vault. The way it’s packed always makes it a gamble. Who knows what you might be bidding on…
“10 pounds of coke!”
“A box of playstation games.”
“You gotta get hazmat down here for some of this shit.”
“See that guy? One time he got a real nice digital safe. He was smashing it on the ground thinking it was fulla cash. Guess what he found when he finally cracked it. A passport!”
Bidding starts fast, and there’s an exciting few minute long contest. It ends with laughs and people yelling “cha-ching!” or making fun of the winner’s silly gamble.
The lot of 4 was bid in a different way. First people bid on each unit by itself. Then there was a chance to beat the total price and take all 4 at once. That part got the most silly.
It was 11AM on a friday, and 30 or 40 people were there. They weren’t office workers. There were lots of working class contractor type guys- some of their wives- a few of their bosses, and small entrepeneur type people. Outside of those regulars, there were some younger hipster-looking guys- a rich looking lady who bid strongly on a unit full of furniture- and a russian lady I know as a yard sale regular. She was casually scouting a new place like me. Only a few people were there for a serious contest. I imagine if you had a big truck, a warehouse, and maybe an employee or 2, you could do well at this.
Clarence was one of the small entrepeneur type people- an african-american guy perhaps in his early 30′s, with a jeans jacket and a small picture of Obama on a necklace. He bid strongly on everything, and he didn’t seem to have a very specific business. He had cash to spend and was looking to get lots of stuff, cheap.
Mr. Auctioneer cracked open a unit that had a dismal pile of metal stuff, spray cans, old tools, and extension cords. It looked like leftovers from some boat business.
“OK, we’re opening bidding on unit K-92. Kayniner two, startyourownhomedepot! Do I hear 50! SeventyfiveseventyfiveSeventyfiveONEhundred!”
Again, Clarence bid strongly and won.
“SoldsolsoldSOLD to the man with the fat wallet!”
“Man, Clarence just paid $250 for a bunch of bullshit.”
“That box mighta had high end power tools in it.”
“Hey Clarence! Know what Obama stands for? Oh Boy Another Mistake Again!”
“Yeah? Guess what was in that box. 4 power tools!”
Next up was a ton of supplies for a plant nursery.
“Clarence, are you getting into the nursing business?”
“Get yourself some grow lights and you’ll be rolling in it.”
I talked to a few of the youngest guys. These weren’t even the hipster types- they looked like college guys.
“Are you putting in any bids today or just watching?”
“It’s our first time. We just bought one for $75. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but you never know. We needed a bed frame.”
One unit looked like a bunch of trash- just piled up cardboard- but people were intrigued.
“That’s recycling shit.”
“Look, this guy sold on ebay.” There were some envelopes among the trash.
“That part’s from a vending machine. There’s probably a whole machine taken apart in there.” It went for over $200.
The 4-unit lot came up. This was the biggest part of the sale.
“Cash only! No checks no credit no girl’s phone numbers no motorcycle parts!”
“You bid, you pay a month rent. No 2 day renting, no prorating! This is San Francisco, everyone’s gotta make their money. I gotta rent these units out! $280 each if you get them all, $360 for one! But I’m a negotiable guy.” I imagine if someone could clear a household of stuff out of 4 units in one day, they might negotiate out of $1000 on top for a month’s rent.
“These people are crazy. They’ll probably pay a grand for a bunch of firewood.”
“Take a look at the packing. If you see a high end moving company, you know they paid to move it right. You’re going to get something.”
“$3000 for that, they’re crazy! ”
“I’ll bet they’re into the flat screen.”
“I hate looking at a unit full of boxes. It makes me think, you could put empty boxes in there and write ‘Baseball cards, 50′s and 60′s’ on them. Or ‘Comic books, 40s and 50′s.’ A guy I know paid $1000 for a unit at this shitty moving company, and the secretary whispered something to him about that.”
Me: “Get some cardboard, some cargo containers and a vacant lot, post an ad, and you have an auction.”
“It would be cool if they pulled out 1 box and started at $20. I’d go for that.”
Me: “Me too. I came down on a bike, and I’m not hauling a truck load. I just do books.”
“I have a load of books to get rid of. Have a card?”
Me: “If they’re the right kind, I might rent a car to pick up.”
“We got a $5000 bid! Do I hear 5 and a half!”
A burly guy with a shaved head was sweating and tense. This was the part he was waiting for. He hadn’t bid on the individual units- he waited to bid on all 4. His opponent wasn’t going to take them easily. “He said he gotta go home for the money. Cancel the sale!”
“Cash only, right here right now. Back at 5! $5500…”
“Gimme that for 6.”
“$6000… goingoinggoing-lastchance, soldsoldSOLD for 6 big ones!” The burly guy won.
Who knows how much the household of stuff originally cost, or what happened to the owners… but that’s what happens to abandoned property.
As I was leaving, an older black gentleman in an Obama shirt was clearing out the first unit I saw when I came in. It was one I liked a lot, with office chairs and file boxes. If I had the spare time and space, I might have speculated on the chance of finding good books. Legal books, maybe.
He was plunking file boxes outside and sighing. “I just bought a bunch of paper. $220 for a bunch of paper.” They were labeled with titles like “Substance Abuse Legal Studies”, and full of folders and memos.
Me: “If you find any books, I’ll help you find a home for them. Here’s my card.”
He had a big cargo van parked by the unit. “I’ll probably end up hauling this all to the recycler. I might get $20. All that time and gas. But It’s gotta go. If I took it to the dump they would charge me $30.” The storage company probably took a rental deposit with the bid, to keep people from walking away from losing gambles and leaving them with trash again.
I didn’t find anything to buy, but it was a good show for my $80 deposit.