Storage Wars uncovers the treasures hidden in self-storage facilities.

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Dec. 15 2010 3:45 PM

Let Me Touch Your Junk

Storage Wars uncovers the treasures hidden in self-storage facilities.

Storage Wars. Click image to expand.
Storage Wars

One man's trash is another man's treasure and, via cable, yet a third man's trash TV. Storage Wars (A&E, Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET)—trivial and magnetic, sociologically peculiar and elementally creepy—gives the reality-show treatment to a class of merchants slinking beneath the radar of many a solvent citizen. Here, the contents of lonely storage units—"abandoned," relinquished, repo'd—are reintroduced to the marketplace. The buyers stalk the winding corridors of California self-storage facilities. The auctioneers raise the corrugated gates of the units with a theatrical rattle. Scavenger capitalism snaps its zealous jaws.

The name of the series is matched for grandiosity by the titles of the individual episodes, which sometimes ring with a Don King clang of pugilistic pomp ("Melee in the Maze," "War on the Shore"). Or else they carry the scratch of tumbleweed and the creak of saloon doors among their howling winds ("High Noon in the High Desert," "Senior Center Showdown"), as befits the soundtrack. When the speculators turn their meaty faces to the camera to talk about their bidding strategies and resale plans, the score sounds with the strums and whistles of a spaghetti Western. A fistful of dollars, a roomful of stuff, an Antiques Roadshow on a dead-end street.

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Storage Wars generates a game-show tingle because neither the audience nor the principals are immediately certain about the goodness, badness, or precise ugliness of the contents of any given unit. When a door flies open, prospective bidders may only poke their heads and flashlights beyond its frame. Denied the chance to open boxes and inspect contents, they must test their powers of deductive reasoning, contextual cueing, visual acuity, and occult hunchwork: Are those some bamboo fishing rods back in the corner there? If so, do they hint at the presence of further sporting-goods booty? Of the former owners we learn nothing, so there's a special tenor to our voyeurism: Why were treasures ditched? Why was the junk treasured? Is someone on the lam? Is that a crockpot? Banality and sadness get wrapped up with mysteries that no one except the bill collector, unseen and unsuccessful, cares to think about solving.

This is not a trade that attracts sentimentalists or introspection junkies. The riddles of the dispossessed float in the air like so much stirred-up dust while the buyers talk about themselves in terms appropriate to cowboys, pirates, and big-time hustlers. An on-screen money counter emits piquant ka-chings as they value their merchandise—coin collections and stereo systems and arcane antiques—and reinforce their self-images. Storage Wars introduces Dave, the owner of a consignment store, as "The Mogul" and Darrell, the owner of very many tank tops, as "The Gambler." They thrive on gamesmanship, deriving a particular thrill from bidding up the prices of collections they don't actually want to own, forcing their competitors to devote capital to less-promising lots. "Let's see who I can sucker into the buying this one," is one jazzy iteration of an oft-repeated sentiment. This is, of course, a tactic used broadly in America. I believe it's more or less how we won the Cold War.

Jarrod ("The Young Gun") co-owns a second-hand shop with his wife, Brandi, and their relationship provided for a few juicy moments in the show's opening weeks. At times, low-grade marital tension has initiated questionable decision making. "I don't see any real value in it," Jarrod tensely sighs of one unit, "but I'm gonna bid on it just to keep her quiet for a minute." Elsewhere, Brandi hatches a plan to score big by lying low, believing that the macho Storage Warriors will pay little mind to a bidder of the fairer sex. At first, this stratagem seemed poorly conceived. After all, she was wearing a pretty sundress that showed a bit of cleavage in the front and the pack for her microphone transmitter in the back, hardly inconspicuous. But it worked out, with sexist Darrell—"It's a woman's bidding? What is that?!"—received a comeuppance. Brandi is breaking through some kind of glass ceiling of dubious worth.

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Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.