CLEARWATER — The green metal door to storage unit No. 597 swung open. Two dozen people lined up to size up the meager possessions inside.
Four plump trash bags. Three duffel bags. Two suitcases. A laundry tote. A comforter. An empty litter box. A milk crate.
Once these were someone's belongings, someone's life.
The bidding started at $25.
"I got $25," the manager announced. "$30, $35?"
Dan Heaton, 66, motioned. Most everyone else was already walking to the next unit. Only the veterans stayed to fight it out.
"I've got $35. $40. $50. $60. Got $65? I got $65," the manager said. "Going once, $65 going twice. Sold for $65."
Later Friday, Heaton returned to survey his latest buy. He's been buying abandoned storage units for 21 years. "Even those Storage Wars guys are newbies compared to me," he said.
The trash bags and suitcases were filled with clothes. Nothing as exciting as what turned up in a Clearwater storage unit the day before: a 95-year-old grandmother, embalmed, left lying in her blue coffin for 17 years.
That's about the only thing Heaton hasn't found in his career. His top scores include expensive jewelry and antiques, religious relics, even a race car. But he's also found vermin, mortgage records and human ashes.
He looked at the clothes in Unit No. 597 and estimated he would make his money back. Then his gnarled hands unzipped a black duffel bag.
Jackpot. An Xbox 360 and two video games.
Even after all these years, Heaton still feels the thrill of the hunt.
"Everybody wants to see what's behind door No. 3," he said.
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Heaton was introduced to the storage auction business back when he and his ex-wife worked for Goodwill. Then they started their own thrift business. He used to have four stores. Now he has just one: Thrift Station Too in Dunedin.
"I enjoy it," he said. "It is hard work. But it keeps you in shape."
Before the crash, he said, he grossed $500,000 and employed six people. These days he's breaking even. "It's retail," Heaton said. "It's tough for everyone."
Everyone at the auction — everyone in the storage business — knows who he is. Heaton bids on everything, then loads it into his Isuzu cargo truck. The veterans carry flashlights to illuminate the units. Heaton carries a spotlight.
The business has changed since Storage Wars debuted on A&E Network in 2010, Heaton said. Now each auction attracts a crowd, and everyone thinks they can strike it rich. And with gold going for more than $1,700 an ounce, they might be right. That's what most are looking for when they're bidding.
Heaton looks for it, too, each piece of jewelry going right into his pocket. But to really make money, he has to sell everything. He'll sell the clothes he found Friday at A-AAAKey Mini-Storage on Ulmerton Road for $1 apiece.
Heaton's biggest score was a vintage race car he found in a Clearwater storage unit in 2004. He bought the unit for $400. He sold the car for $18,600 on eBay. His total take on that unit was $25,000.
He also found a $2,000 gold watch, and a 1972 Chevy Impala with black cherry paint and nothing but a dashboard inside. He got $1,500 for it and another $1,000 for the 14-speaker stereo system.
In Manatee County, he bought a unit for $465 that a priest left behind after he died. Heaton found 20 religious relics inside and sold each for $500.
Heaton won two auctions on Friday. The second, for $165, yielded a chair and table, an old mattress, a bed frame, boxes filled with spices, teddy bears, nail polish, baby teeth, photos (in one, a kid holds up a bag of marijuana), Bank of America statements and a letter from the public defender's office. Heaton cut his right hand as he picked through it and loaded it up. He doesn't wear gloves.
"Haven't caught anything yet," he said. "At least I haven't gotten bed bugs yet."
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Tammie Lockwood, 45, is vice president of Storage Protection Service in St. Petersburg.
She's seen some strange things. The strangest are the things that used to be alive.
There was a fish tank with the petrified fish. The dried-out husks of two dead iguanas. Dead snakes. A dead cat. Countless empty aquariums.
Some things, though, survived: a python that lay dormant for who knows how long; or the two tarantulas that survived by eating each other and a third.
She's also seen people living in their units.
"People aren't supposed to be living in there," she said. "But from time to time people do try to make these storage units their homes."
Drugs are a big reason why people pack their lives into a unit, then disappear, according to Lockwood. Then there's the economy. Families are moving in together, and they don't have room for all their stuff.
When a unit's rent is 30 days delinquent, legal proceedings to hold an auction can begin. After all the notices have gone out, the letters mailed and the calls made, the auction can take place in 90 days.
Lockwood always asks her winning bidders to return the stuff that isn't valuable to them: the original owner's personal items, photos, papers, urns, etc.
Leanne Tornatore, 57, who manages Castle Keep Mini Storage in Hudson with her husband Dave, said she's spent months tracking down people who have lost their stuff at auction. The least she can do is give them back their urns.
"We still have to be human beings," she said. "I have to sleep at night."