Self storage in America.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
July 18 2005 6:41 AM

Self-Storage Nation

Americans are storing more stuff than ever.

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And even when the stored items are innocent possessions, a certain poignant sadness haunts them: They are mementos we somehow can't live with, and yet can't live without, and exemplify the downside of acquisition, the moment when you realize there are more bread machines, plastic lawn chairs, and treadmills than anyone could use in a lifetime. Or they signify the thirtysomething moving back in with his parents, with nowhere to put his black leather couch. The Onion rather mischievously labeled one fictional self-storage facility in Chicago a "Museum of Personal Failure."

This is not the picture of self storage the industry wants you to have, of course. They want you to know that today's self-storage spaces are increasingly upscale redoubts, with landscaping boasting 30-foot waterfalls, air conditioning, and architecture that is, as one builder put it, "like walking into a custom home." Self storage now boasts 55-degree wine cellars, as well as capacious berths for RVs and yachts, since many homeowners associations now have restrictions against parking such things in driveways.

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Like our possessions, self storage is clearly here to stay. In Topeka, Kan., the "coolest new building" in town, according to one critic, is Flex Storage Systems, a well-lit, natural-wood-accented structure that seems capable, if nothing else, of making self storage safe for the Dwell generation. Its location is ironic, to say the least: Near a "glorified junkyard called Joyland"; across from an "abandoned K-Mart Store"; and near "Fresh Start Auto Credit: Second Chance Finance." Here one can find the whole gamut of American consumerism. "You can't take it with you," as the proverb begins—but you can certainly find a place to stash it away.

Tom Vanderbilt is author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, now available in paperback. He is contributing editor to Artforum, Print, and I.D.; contributing writer to Design Observer; and has written for many publications, including Wired, the Wilson Quarterly, the New York Times Magazine, and the London Review of Books. He blogs at howwedrive.com and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/tomvanderbilt.