How the Self-Storage Boom Snuck Up on Us

Last year, when my grandmother was moved from Central Illinois to my parents’ house in Indiana for hospice care, I wanted to help in the transition somehow. As it turned out, she had some belongings that would need to be stored for a short time while everyone was dealing with her eventual passing, so I was tasked with finding a storage locker.

The job seemed simple enough, but locating available self-storage proved a grueling days-long affair. I had never rented storage before, and I failed to realize that, nationally, self-storage is 90 percent full. There were plenty of nearby businesses to choose from, but it seemed that everyone else had the same need as me. It hadn’t occurred to me that those giant buildings I mentally blocked out on my morning commute had formed themselves into an American necessity. There are more than 50,000 of them all over the country, and they make up a 38 billion-dollar industry. That’s more than three times Hollywood’s gross box office revenue in 2017.

Last year marked a new record for investment in self-storage, with just under 4 billion dollars spent on the construction of new facilities (that’s double the amount spent in 2016). At this point, we have more than 7 square feet of rentable storage space for every person in the U.S. We’re also unique in our culture of storage, taking up 90 percent of the global market as of 2013.

The data hits you square in the face like a stack of old comic books. Are we so profanely materialistic, or is nomadic city-living and short-term necessity propping up a temporary industry?

Professor Valerie Folkes is an expert in consumer psychology at University of Southern California, and she says the changing demographics in U.S. consumers could play a role. Delayed marriage — and homeownership — in younger people leads to longer independence and fluidity in living situations, according to Folkes. Since millennials are still acquiring stuff during this period, they may need somewhere to put it in the case of a sudden move or unexpected circumstance.

Younger people might be utilizing storage for specific needs, but it appears that the majority of its consumers skew older. According to the Self-Storage Association, 68 percent of facilities are in suburban and rural areas and 65 percent of renters already have a garage. The crux of the industry’s success may just be that, as Folkes says, “Self-storage relieves consumers from having to make hard decisions about disposal.” Renting a storage unit can effectively delay the stress of arbitration when it comes to never-worn clothing or years-old keepsakes. Disposal can be painful because we place more value on items we own than those we don’t. “Part of that is because an object becomes an extension of our own image and identity once we own it,” Folkes says. Throwing that away can be, at least fleetingly, distressing.

America’s relationship with our possessions is not new, though, at least according to The Saturday Evening Post. In 1950, the article “Tales of the Moving Vans” tells about the original moving and self-storage company, Bekins:

Sentiment clings to objects which have become symbols of old joys and griefs. The possessive instinct, which takes in collectors and hobbyists, just clings. The man who won’t let his wife throw away an old magazine and fills attic and basement with stuff that “might come in handy,” sometimes cannot part with his hoardings even when the moving van backs up.

The company, founded in 1891, used the apt slogan “Corridors Where Dreams Are Stored.” Bekins, while serving the Silent Generation, understood their attachment to items — such as the clothing of a son or husband who didn’t return from the war — but it was perceived as a virtue that grows with age, as the 1950 article put it: “The young never have been sentimental about things. They have few things and haven’t had them long; it takes years of association before a thing becomes part of you.”

If sentimental attachment to ones possessions drives the construction of storage facilities, then the modern consumer is perhaps doubly so. For some dense cities, this poses a problem. In places like New York and San Francisco, the rise of storage buildings has been met with resistance from city officials and community groups. While the enterprise of owning such an operation can be extremely lucrative — and 74 percent of self-storage facilities are owned by small-time entrepreneurs — it adds very few jobs to a community and gobbles up precious real estate that could be used for housing and businesses. On top of that, the boxy, windowless buildings decrease walkability and can scarcely be considered an aesthetic addition to a neighborhood. Some city councils have carved out zones that ban the development of storage buildings, to popular approval from constituents.

Although business is booming, around 155,000 rental units are abandoned each year. Tenants either can’t pay or won’t pay, allowing their possessions to go to auction. Professor Folkes isn’t surprised that people often abandon their possessions after some time apart. They may adjust to life just fine without their grandmother’s tchotchke collection, but it’s the initial decision of disposal that is so difficult.

Whether ubiquitous self-storage is an impending lifestyle or a fleeting idiosyncrasy isn’t clear. Will we wake up in 40 or 50 years and think, why in heaven’s name did we build all of these things? Given the rise of trendy minimalist living in a sharing economy, the storage industry’s boom comes at an unexpected time. Only time will tell if it’s a new reality or a last gasp.

Instead of constructing new buildings, some storage companies will likely be looking at existing, underutilized places to set up shop. With the “retail apocalypse” underway, a shopping mall could be the perfect spot. That’s right, you could soon be taking your stuff — and your money — right back where you got it.

News of the Week: Those We Lost in 2016, Words to Banish in 2017, and Soup to Eat Right Now

In Memoriam

It really does seem that more celebrities died in 2016, doesn’t it? But I’m not sure if that’s actually true. We probably saw the same number of celebrities pass away, it’s just that we’re all getting older, and a lot of our big cultural icons — David Bowie, Muhammad Ali, Prince, Nancy Reagan, Garry Shandling, George Michael, John Glenn, Florence Henderson, Alan Thicke, almost the entire cast of The Patty Duke Show — passed away in the same year, sometimes so close together it seemed like an onslaught.

Of all of the year-end tributes and memorials, CBS Sunday Morning always has the best:

(By the way, if you’re wondering why Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher aren’t in there, they got their own separate tribute.)

Of course, celebrity deaths don’t stop just because someone makes a compilation video. Since this aired, we lost M*A*S*H actor William Christopher, actresses Barbara Tarbuck and Sandra Giles, Walt Disney animator Tyrus Wong, red plastic Solo Cup inventor Robert Hulseman, and Jeffrey Hayden, husband of Eva Marie Saint and director of dozens and dozens of classic TV shows.

Don’t Use These Words in 2017

Every year, Lake Superior State University in Michigan unveils its list of words and phrases from the previous year that need to be banished. Last year’s list included breaking the internet, but that phrase is still being used every single day, so some people just aren’t listening.

This year’s list includes listicle, dadbod, guesstimate, echo chamber, on fleek, and bigly. That last one is interesting because it’s not even a word, it’s a misheard phrase. President-elect Donald Trump often says “big league,” but it comes out sounding like “bigly.” But maybe we should banish big league too, unless we’re talking about baseball.

The list also includes “831” which I have never heard or seen anyone use. Apparently, it’s an encrypted way to say “I love you”: Eight letters, three words, one meaning.

Things We Remember That Younger People Won’t Understand

Over on Twitter, Eric Alper posted a query that got a lot of attention:


The first thing that comes to my mind are all phone-related: busy signals, only having one phone in your house (and it was attached by a cord!), answering machines, having to carry change for the phone booth, etc. You can click on the tweet’s date above to see what other people suggested, and a lot of them are technology-oriented. Younger people will never know the frustration of waiting for someone to get off the phone so we could get online, back when downloading something took 37 hours.

Or how about how there used to be great songs on AM radio (if they can understand what “radio” is beyond SiriusXM)? Having to type a letter on a typewriter (or writing it by hand) and having to put it in an envelope and take it to a mailbox, and the other person wouldn’t get it for days? More freedom at airports? Having a stranger come to your home to take off the back of your TV to repair it (and before remotes, having to walk over to your TV and turn a knob to change the channel)? Having to call someone you knew or go to a library to find out a fact? Carbon paper? Having to wait months and months to see the repeat of a TV show you missed (and how TV channels actually ended their broadcast day late at night)? Or how as teens we had to somehow catch a glimpse of Playboy because the web wasn’t invented yet and all that stuff wasn’t available with only a few clicks.

Not that I ever did that or anything.

What other joys and frustrations from your formative years will today’s young people never experience? Let us know your ideas in the comments below.

Singin’ in the Rain

Lobby Card for the 1952 film, Singin' in the Rain. Featuring Debbie Reynolds.
By Metro Goldwyn Mayer (ebay card) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Two big events are happening to celebrate the life of Debbie Reynolds. Turner Classic Movies and Fathom are teaming up to show Singin’ in the Rain in selected theaters on January 15 and 18, something that was already scheduled for the movie’s 65th anniversary. Then on January 27, TCM will run a 24-hour marathon of her movies, including Singin’ in the Rain, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, The Tender Trap, The Mating Game, and How the West Was Won.

Considering she was only 19 and had very little dancing experience, she really does an amazing job in Singin’ in the Rain, holding her own with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. She once said that “Singin in the Rain and childbirth were the two hardest things I ever had to do in my life.”

Hanna Barbera Meets Norman Rockwell

Many people may not realize that the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, not only celebrates the life and work of the Saturday Evening Post artist, it holds other events as well. From now until May, the museum is going to concentrate on the work of Hanna Barbera, makers of such classic cartoons as The Flintstones, Tom & Jerry, Yogi Bear, The Jetsons, and Scooby-Doo. There will be guest speakers, visitors will be able to take art classes, and there will even be breakfast served, so you can pretend you’re home eating cereal and watching Saturday-morning cartoons (another experience lost to today’s youth).

But if you’re thinking about wearing your pajamas, I’d call ahead first.

This Week in History

George Washington Unveils First American Flag (January 1, 1776)

The flag is usually called the “Grand Union” but some sources say it can also be called the “Great Union.”

Ellis Island Opens (January 1, 1892)

Over 12 million immigrants came to the U.S. through Ellis Island from 1892 until it closed November 12, 1954.

Alaska Becomes 49th State (January 3, 1959)

Did you know that Alaska has more coastline than all of the lower 48 states? It even has several beaches.

Soup Is Good Food

Curtis Stone's Homemade chicken soup
Curtis Stone’s Homemade-Chicken-Soup-Makes-Me-Feel-Better Soup

January is National Soup Month, and eating soup in January is the very definition of “comfort food,” isn’t it? In the current issue of The Saturday Evening Post, food columnist Curtis Stone gives us the recipes for some soups to warm both the body and the soul, including Weeknight Navy Bean and Ham and Creamy Celery Root Soup. You can also make Stone’s Homemade-Chicken-Soup-Makes-Me-Feel-Better Soup or his Winter Vegetable Minestrone.

The good thing about soup is that it can be rather healthy for you, to help you stick to those New Year’s resolutions you’ve made. It might even give you a dadbod. This is only a guesstimate, but I think many people might even say that soup is on fleek.

Next Week’s Holidays and Events

Houseplant Appreciation Day (January 10)

Just a week or so after you threw out one giant plant that was shedding needles on your carpet, you can learn how to take care of the smaller ones you have around your house.

Stephen Foster Memorial Day (January 13)

This day celebrates the life of the American songwriter, famous for songs like “Oh, Susanna,” “Old Folks at Home” (aka “Swanee River”), “Camptown Races,” and “My Old Kentucky Home.”

National Blame Someone Else Day (January 13)

Supposedly this day, “celebrated” on the first Friday the 13th of the year, was invented by Anne Moeller of Clio, Michigan, one morning in 1982, when her alarm clock didn’t go off. But I don’t know if that’s true or just a joke to blame her for it. If you don’t like the day, don’t blame her, blame someone else.