CALN - It's safe to say that Americans love stuff. And, in the words of a well-known comedy routine, they need a place to keep their stuff.

Occasionally, there's not enough room at home for all the stuff that's been collected, or "home" is in a state of transition. That's where the self-storage industry plays a role.

"I think the American public are packrats, generally," said Karen English, a spokeswoman for the Springfield, Va.-based Self-Storage Association.

Ira Berman, a principle owner of the soon-to-be built Valley Forge Self-Storage on Second Avenue in Phoenixville, said that we live in a "nation of hoarders."

Across the nation, self-storage is big business. According to industry sources, there were 13.06 million self-storage units - the rooms of various size behind the locked, roll-up doors - in America at the end of 2003.

That number represents an increase of about 31 percent since 2002, when there were 10 million units, and an increase of 60 percent since 1999's 8.15 million.

Susan Norris, co-owner of Whitehorse Self Storage on Second Avenue in Phoenixville, partially attributed the surge in storage rentals to the population growth in the area.

While Norris said that many residents are building homes and are short of storage space, she also said that for many people change, such as a child leaving for school, or an elderly member of the family entering an assisted living center, might create a storage need.

Berman said that as more and more people move into townhouses and condominiums with limited storage space the need for public storage rises.

As in any business, profits must be made, and self-storage makes its money through unit rental. As in many businesses, unfortunately, some customer accounts become long overdue, and as a last resort the rental is terminated.

That's where stuff plays a role again. More often than not, the former customers have abandoned what's left in the unit, leaving the storage facility's management to dispose of it. Or sell it, whatever it is.

That question - what's behind the door? - brought seven potential buyers to a Caln self-storage facility's monthly sale on a frigid Wednesday morning this week.

"It's really rather uneventful," said Mike Rhoads, treasurer for All Seasons Storage, the York-based corporation that owns the Caln facility and 20 others in five states. "We do auctions regularly, but it's not usually a lot of stuff. Mostly it's items of sentimental value, sentimental to somebody."

Some of the seven potential buyers were flea market regulars who scoured such sales for reselling businesses or as a hobby. Others, like David and Annette, of East Bradford, were frequent estate auctiongoers who had recently discovered storage clearance sales.

"She's the expert," David said of his wife. "She'll buy a storage unit and recycle everything."

Some of it, they said, ended up sold through the auction Web site eBay. Some went to charity or consignment shops. Once in a great while, a piece might end up in Annette's antique business. Then there were the occasional gems.

David said he'd recently bought a storage unit full of sealed cardboard boxes for $5, which was adventure enough.

"You get the half-empty bottle of Tide detergent, the leftover chrome polish," he said.

Emptying the space, however, he found an antique oak dresser buried at the back, which he'd kept for himself.

After the mystery of the boxes and the thrill of the discovered purchase, he could only speculate on where the old furniture had once been.

"It was somebody's life, really," he said. "Now it's become part of mine."

"The rare good find," Rhoads said, "is when somebody forgets what they had in there. Or when there's a divorce or turmoil outside of the rental agreement and it just doesn't get paid."

To the disappointment of the bargain hunters, however, there were no gems on Wednesday when the locks were cut on three abandoned storage units.

Among the items in the first unit were a sectional couch, two sleds and two five-pound exercise weights, a dusty fish tank, chairs, shelving and a sewing machine. The items, sold as one lot, went for $50.

"I drove an hour to get here, I may as well have something in my truck on the way back," said Eric, the buyer, who resells merchandise on the flea market circuit. "I might throw away everything but the couch."

In the second unit to be sold, there was less: a few plastic garbage bags stuffed full of clothing. There were no bidders.

"Can I pay somebody to take them away?" the facility's manager joked.

Behind door number three was a box of Christmas decorations, a dart board, a "Customer Parking Only" sign, a shelf and a rumpled jacket. Once again, the items attracted no interest from the assembled onlookers, who quickly dispersed.

The Wednesday morning sale at the storage facility didn't match the excitement of the morning last year that a small business purchased two large units of office furniture for $300. On the other hand, though, it didn't turn up discarded evidence of a crime - bodies or weapons or large sums of cash, as in a cinematic thriller.

"There's that wild story that goes around in the industry," said Rhoads, "but I've never seen anything like that in my experience."

Phoenix Staff Writer Bill Rettew, Jr. contributed to this report.

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