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February 11th, 2011
Auctioning off the past

Dale Wheelis, manager of Tom Thumb Mini Storage in San Marcos, began Saturday morning’s bidding of storage items up for auction. PHOTO by BRAD ROLLINS


On Saturday morning Dale Wheelis raised the bay door of a storage unit whose renters had fallen hopelessly behind on their payments.

Teri Koch rifles through a stack of vinyl records she found among the contents of a storage unit she just bought at auction in San Marcos. PHOTO by WES FERGUSON

Till that moment, the contents of the unit had been open to nothing but speculation. Now more than 30 people gathered around for their first glimpse inside.

“Everybody get a look,” Wheelis said.

The people appraised the boxes, appliances and piles of junk, looking for signs of treasure buried among the clutter.

“There’s a TV,” said a man in the crowd, Louis Froelick of Kyle. “Washer and dryer. TV back there.”

Wheelis, the gray-haired manager of Tom Thumb Mini Storage in San Marcos, opened the round of bidding. “Do I hear $5?” he said. “I got 5. Do I hear $10? I got 10.”

Perched on a barstool in the storage unit behind Wheelis was a large, unframed portrait of a woman with bouffant locks. She wore a half smile and dark eyes set in a moon-shaped face. Some kind of feathery purple fabric was draped across her shoulders. A senior portrait, perhaps, or a glamor shot taken by a mall photographer.

“Two hundred once?” Wheelis asked. “Two-oh-five. Do I hear 210?”

The woman in the picture seemed to be smiling upon the bidders.

The portrait, barstools and other items appeared to have been accumulated over several years. They were the kinds of things that follow people through moves and marriages, filling attics and garages and closets in tucked-away corners of homes. When people run out of room, or life takes an unexpected turn, the excess winds up in places like Tom Thumb.

We don’t know why someone quit paying his rent for this particular storage unit, or why he thought that his best option was to cast off these belongings. What we do know is that on Saturday morning, plenty of bidders were prepared to assume ownership of the entire stockpile, as long as it came at a bargain price.

Wayne Koch, a tall man officially known as bidder No. 2, quickly raised his hand. He offered $205 for the contents of the unit.

“Two-oh-five once,” Wheelis said. “Two-oh-five twice. Sold to No. 2 for $205.”

Wheelis led the crowd to the next storage unit. Following behind was Tom Thumb himself, business owner Tom Hamilton. Hamilton said TV shows like “Storage Wars” and “Auction Hunters” have lately fueled interest in his storage unit auctions, which are held every six months or so.

“That TV show really brings ’em out, I tell you,” Hamilton said. He added, though, that by the time the units go on the auction block, delinquent renters owe far more than will be recouped from the public sale. “We don’t ever come out ahead on these deals,” he said.

The second unit was filled with a barbecue pit smoker and other outdoor-grilling gear. It sold for $400. At another, smaller unit, Wheelis raised the door to reveal broken dishes and piles of baby stuff, including a car seat and stroller.

“Jeez, it’s just a bunch of junk,” complained a person in the crowd.

“Good bonfire material,” another added.

In a dark corner, three unworn baby dresses dangled from the rafters.

Upon conclusion of the auction, Wayne Koch and his wife Teri paid what they owed and began the process of digging through their winnings. The Koches consider themselves old pros.

“The TV shows have got everybody fired up,” Wayne said. “They think they’re gonna find gold, but it’s mostly junk. Sometimes you lose your (butt) on this.”
“But we’ll make our money back,” Teri added.

Wayne opened a black carrying case and thumbed through a collection of DVDs.

“I’ll make my money back right here,” he said. “Take ’em to a pawn shop and get $3 apiece for them.”

Teri kneeled on the concrete of the storage unit floor and cut open cardboard boxes. She found, among other things, a stack of old vinyl records. Wayne came across a pair of binoculars. Before long, the couple had gone through everything.

Wayne grabbed the portrait of the dark-eyed woman, and he found a place for it in the back of his pickup truck. He’d paid for it, and it was now his to do with as he pleased.

WES FERGUSON writes for the Hays Free Press where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Free Press and the San Marcos Mercury.

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