Once a customer abandoned an old freezer containing fish in his storage unit. Another time, lawyers took a few items out of a deceased client's unit and said to dump the rest.
Ray Hempstead, in his 23 years as owner of Barney's Mini Storage in St. Petersburg, has had to get rid of it all: stacks of pornography, collections of Hot Wheels and Lionel trains, a brass slot machine, baby pictures.
On the third Saturday of most months, he holds an auction for the forgotten or abandoned possessions of people behind in their payments.
His business may not be recession proof, but it's close.
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On a recent rainy Saturday, Hempstead held a forced sale to auction the detritus of several storage units: furniture, ancient suitcases, a laptop computer, a record player, a 1983 Honda motorcycle and a Stephen King novel.
Under state law, self-storage operators must notify delinquent renters in person or by certified mail before auctioning their property. They must also advertise the sale in a local newspaper. Typical buyers are used furniture shop owners and flea market vendors.
But at Barney's Mini Storage, those who attend the auctions aren't allowed to rummage through the storage units before bidding.
They look over the stuff, which may be in boxes and bins or buried under other stuff, and make a guess as to the value.
It's not for anyone without "a bit of adventure'' in their soul, said Hempstead.
That Saturday, Hempstead set the starting bid at $30 for what appeared to be the least valuable contents of a unit, and $350 for a unit whose contents included two wheeled garbage bins and a pair of banquet tables.
Only two bidders showed up. One was an employee of another Hempstead enterprise, Barney's Motorcycle and Marine.
The owner of the Honda motorcycle prevented its sale by calling and promising to pay on Monday. He did.
Nothing was heard from the other renters.
"Ninety-nine percent of the time, we don't even make enough money to cover what they owe,'' Hempstead said. "Our business is not selling people's stuff. Our business is renting holes.''
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Auctions like the one at Barney's might be a sign of the times. But despite a wave of layoffs and foreclosures, Hempstead and others in the area's self-storage business say such sales have not increased dramatically.
"We're not necessarily seeing a big upswing in auctions because of the economy,'' said Tim Dietz, spokesman for the Self Storage Association, a national organization of 6,000 companies.
Anecdotal evidence suggests, though, that some operators are holding more sales to get rid of property sitting in unpaid storage units, Dietz said.
The economy appears to be having a mixed effect on the business. On one hand, it benefits from the country's economic slump as families consolidate living spaces, desperate home owners declutter properties to hurry along a sale, and as entrepreneurs store excess inventory.
"We're pretty useful for businesses that are downsizing,'' said Terry Hunt, owner of Tampa's United Self Mini Storage.
Then again, in places like Florida, self-storage operators also are feeling the effects of slowed housing construction. Carpenters, plumbers and others in the trade need fewer units to store equipment.
"I would say that the industry is recession resistant, not recession proof,'' Dietz said. "The industry will feel the downturn of the economic cycle, but not as dramatically as the housing market, for example.''
The storage business is prone to certain trends during economic contractions, agreed Robert Francis, chairman of the storage association and president of the Heron Group in Kissimmee. His company owns 18 facilities in the United States and Canada.
In times like these, said Francis, people tend to rent more storage.
Often it's because cash-strapped adult kids have moved back home, he said.
Hempstead said, "It's just like anything else, it ebbs and flows.''
"When it's good times, people store their toys and maybe extra furniture. When it's bad times, they store what they want to keep and may not have room for.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727)892-2283.