It was midday in Waltham, and hot. The self-storage place felt desolate, no one around but an employee, sitting alone, guarding . . . what? People’s memories? Their treasures? Their junk?
Then, out of the pre-fab building, Sharon Scopa emerged, a 52-year-old woman who had just visited her late mother’s Princess Diana dolls, a collection she recently brought over from her other storage unit, in Brockton.
“I wanted to be closer to them,” Scopa said.
Between the two units Scopa is paying $270 a month, all to keep family memorabilia that might never leave storage. “I’m too sentimental,” she said.
Welcome to America’s other clutter epidemic, the one taking place off-site, and so monstrous it’s fueling an industry with $38 billion in annual revenue, according to SpareFoot, a company that tracks the self-storage industry.
Nearly one out of ten American households rents a storage unit, and with between 45,000 and 52,000 self-storage facilities in the United States, and 1.7 billion square feet of rentable space, according to SpareFoot, is it any surprise there are at least two podcasts devoted to the self-storage trade? (Sample episode from “Sounds of Storage”: How to market to millennials.)
The average price Massachusetts consumers paid for a storage unit in 2017 was $105, according to SpareFoot. But you can pay a lot more — as much as $956 a month for a 15x18 unit on North Beacon Street, according to a current listing, although it is heated and on the first floor.
People regularly spend thousands of dollars a year to store things they don’t want but can’t bring themselves to throw out, said a Boston professional organizer, Cori Bamburg, founder of Ditch the Clutter.
“The storage unit becomes a tomb of things you don’t know what else to do with,” she said.
With their security cameras and hallways of seemingly endless locked doors, storage facilities throw off a prison vibe, but behind some of those doors lies hope, said Kathy Vines, founder of Clever Girl Organizing on the North Shore.
She’s worked with clients struggling with infertility, and for them, selling or donating an inherited crib or toys may mean letting go of a dream.
“Renting a unit lets them live without having to face the reality that what they envisioned for their family life may not happen,” she said.
Who rents space? The better question is who doesn’t. Criminals do, per every TV crime show ever made and also per real-world news headlines. So do people between moves, or renovating, or staging a home for sale. And people with garages already bursting with junk, or no room to keep holiday decorations or skis. Well, those are the clients the storage facilities play up on their websites, at least.
No one in the industry openly boasts about what might be called “guilt renting,” but with baby boomers downsizing, and kids not interested in their brown furniture, it’s definitely a category.
Natalie Ahern, founder of All the Right Moves, a senior downsizing and relocation firm in Hingham, recalled a client who had moved her mother to a memory care unit and promptly became responsible for storing her mother’s belongings, a job she didn’t want but took on because her siblings were unwilling.
“She was the caregiver not only for her mom,” Ahern said, “but also for her mother’s things.”
If we could truly buy ourselves out of the guilt, self-storage debt might be worth it. But as Rhea Becker, founder of the Clutter Queen, noted, “The thing about clutter is that it weighs on you even if you’re not around it.”
Becker and other personal organizers are regularly hired by clients to accompany them to their storage units when they want help culling, a move that typically signals the end is near.
“People get to a point in their lives where they are mentally done with their storage,” Becker said.
Jacqueline Davis, a paralegal in Braintree, is there — so there — right now.
When her mother-in-law died, in 2013, none of the adult children wanted her furniture, but they figured the grandkids might use it when they got old enough for their own apartments.
Into storage it went. Today, six years — and some $14,000 later, made in automatic monthly payments Davis barely noticed — the grandkids have their own places, but not grandma’s stuff. “They wanted new things,” said Davis.
“If I had it to do over again,” she added, “I’d be like, ‘Dump it.’”
In Rockport, Vivienne Steinbock is also ready to move on.
She has been spending several hundred dollars a month to store her parents’ furniture, china, decorations, and other household items, since 2015, when her widowed mother moved out of the house in Mansfield.
Unready to let go, Steinbock found paying easier than going to the industrial unit in Foxborough, with its roll down metal door and bare bulb, and sifting through the physical remains of her parents’ life together.
But her mother recently died, and the monthly rent had hit $450, and it was time to summon the next generation to the storage unit. “If some of my mother’s grandchildren and great grandchildren want things,” she said, “that would make me feel much better.”
And if they took them because they felt obligated and stored them? she was asked.
“That would be OK,” she said. “Once they have them I can psychologically cut them loose.”
And so the cycle begins again.
Beth Teitell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bethteitell.