WEST BRIDGEWATER - When the door went up on the first storage unit of the day, two friends, twenty-somethings from the North Shore, saw a reason to bid.
To win, they would have to outbid some 130 people gathered on a Saturday morning this month at Atlas Self Storage in West Bridgewater, where an auction of 22 rent-delinquent units was about to begin. Many bidders had stood waiting for an hour under a threatening gray sky.
Behind the first door was a sloping mountain of tossed-in belongings - old audio equipment, a satellite dish, a vacuum, a child’s bicycle, a box-spring with the fabric missing, and a sink.
“It’s got everything in it - and the kitchen sink,’’ said a voice in the crowd.
The pile might have looked like junk, but Dave Giabbai and Paul McCaleb knew what they wanted. With a few rhythmic rolls of the auctioneer’s tongue, the contents were theirs for $200. They saw enough scrap metal, they said, to turn a profit. McCaleb, a community college student, said he hoped to make this a career.
Like many of today’s storage auction bidders, the friends learned the ropes from reality television. The A&E series “Storage Wars’’ and Spike TV’s “Auction Hunters’’ have brought flocks of new bidders to auctions.
Paul Maglio, auctioneer and president of Middleton-based Storage Auction Solutions, said 50 percent more people show up at the typical auction today, compared with a few years ago. And winning bids have risen 20 to 40 percent.
“The TV shows have created extreme interest, because most people never knew this existed,’’ he said.
Business seems to have picked up in the poor economy, too, as owners of foreclosed homes move into apartments, put articles in storage, but then fail to keep up the payments, he said. His company had about 70 auctions scheduled this month in Massachusetts.
Storage companies do not relish renters’ misfortune, those in the industry say. Hosting auctions means extra work, and Massachusetts lien law stipulates that any profit, beyond back rent and auctioneers’ fees, goes to the renter.
“The last thing we want to do is actually take people’s stuff away,’’ said Jim Doherty, general manager at Atlas. The units up for auction on March 10 had been delinquent for between 161 and 434 days, he said, and renters receive multiple notices. Anyone who wins at auction must agree to return personal paperwork and photos they find to the storage company, which must offer them to the renter.
Early birds had hoped the crowd would be small, with few newcomers to drive up the bids. But more people arrived, and someone gave a muted shout of, “Yuuup!’’ mimicking Dave Hester, “The Mogul’’ from “Storage Wars.’’
The group had swelled by the time the auctioneer barked the terms of sale around 9 a.m. As the would-be bidders listened, they shifted their weight about and let their eyes fall on the rows of overhead doors that hid trash and treasure.
Unlike an antiques auction, no list of items or preview gives potential bidders a chance to plan and mull. When the auctioneer raises the door, bidders play their hand in a matter of seconds.
Crowds, especially of amateurs, can be a thorn in the side of regulars. Each time an auctioneer opens a unit, potential buyers must parade slowly past the door to get a look inside, and that takes time.
“It just takes longer to get through the lockers because people are just being busy-bodies,’’ said Ron Mazzacco, a dealer from Lansingburgh, N.Y.
Buy low and sell high - that is the dream. Buyers need a place to sell, and thanks to websites like eBay and Craigslist, amateurs no longer need a consignment shop to get into the game.
Everyone hopes to find a gem behind the boxes and cheap furniture that dominate many of the units. But seasoned buyers bid on what they see, not just what they hope to find.
Mazzacco, who spent $1,700 on one of the higher-priced units of the day, likes to get a feel for the kind of person who rented it. When the door went up on his unit, he could see two black computers at the front.
Computers go out of date fast, so they have little resale value. Instead, Mazzacco trained his eye on the clean, colorful plastic bins, stacks and stacks of them, like something out of a fastidious college student’s dorm room. They hinted at high-end household goods easy to resell, he said.
He also saw lifting straps used to move furniture, another good hint at what might be hidden in the back.
“You never know what you’re going to find,’’ he said.
The most valuable find of his career was a diamond ring that was appraised at $11,000, though the resale value is much lower, he said.
Looks can be deceiving. At an auction in South Boston, Mazzacco said, a unit full of metal briefcases generated great excitement; it turned out to be full of books, value unknown. Another unit that sold cheaply turned out to contain memorabilia signed by Muhammad Ali, he said.
First-timers Jack and Jacqueline Lowe of Halifax came mainly out of curiosity, after seeing storage auctions on television. Jacqueline likes the competition of an auction, but she had nothing special in mind she wanted to buy.
“Who knows? You might find that secret hidden thing that’s worth thousands of dollars,’’ she said.
Others had their eye out for something in particular. Roger Sollis of Middleborough looked for a transmission jack for his son, who does automotive work and wants to start his own business. At another storage auction in Middleborough, they bought torches he needed.
Carmen Tortora of Brockton sells items from his home and said he hoped to find large items such as motor scooters, refrigeration units, power tools, and lawn tools.
Experienced dealers know better than newcomers what they can resell. No one, though, knows what’s hidden at the back of a storage unit. Bidders admit they love the thrill of a good find, just like they see on TV.
Maglio, the auctioneer, saw a first-time bidder in Connecticut pay $50 for a unit no one wanted. It smelled of rotten food, but the rookie found an envelope tucked amid the mess.
It held $800.
West Bridgewater auction
22 Units auctioned for nonpayment
434 days Most delinquent unit
161 days Least delinquent unit
130 Registered bidders
$10,000+ Total bids S
SOURCES: Jim Doherty of Atlas Self Storage, Paul L. Maglio of Storage Auction Solutions