The big business of storing stuff

The Rush nightclub, along Highway 61 in Cottage Grove, has been closed for quite awhile. At one time it was a country bar and if there’s one thing that should do well in Cottage Grove, it’s a country-western bar. But it didn’t.

It’s been a headache for the last eight years, the Pioneer Press reports. But maybe it’s hit on the perfect development for the southwest burbs — a place to store our stuff.

There are already plenty of storage facilities in the area. Woodbury, just up the road, has two at different points along Interstate 494. South St. Paul, just on the other side of the river, has at least one, and all of them seem to be doing well.

The new Cottage Grove idea — a climate-controlled facility — should do well, too. If there’s one thing we’ve got in the suburbs, it’s stuff.

A dozen years or so ago, when I was delivering the Pioneer Press before putting in a full day at MPR News, I used to get a good look at people’s lives. The neighborhoods were full of mini-castles and McMansions, with thousands of square feet of space. The cars were often parked in the driveways and on those occasions when they forgot to close their garage doors, I got a good look at why: the garage was packed to the rafters with stuff.

Even when the BlogDog gets her morning walk, we’re able to spy the same situation in our more working-class neighborhood.

Every now and again, the local paper — the very fine Woodbury Bulletin — prints a notice that someone didn’t pay their bill and now the stuff in the storage unit had to be sold. It’s usually golf clubs, microwaves, children’s toys, and bikes.

Maybe there wasn’t room in the garage. Maybe it’s a marriage that went south, kids that went off to college, people that lost their homes.

Whatever. There’s big business in stuff.

Before the recession hit, there was a building boom of storage centers, the New York Times Magazine reported in 2009 when things started to taper off.

“Human laziness has always been a big friend of self-storage operators,” Derek Naylor, president of the consultant group Storage Marketing Solutions, told the paper at the time. “Because once they’re in, nobody likes to spend all day moving their stuff out of storage. As long as they can afford it, and feel psychologically that they can afford it, they’ll leave that stuff in there forever.”

When self-storage facilities first sprouted, it was a short term rental for people in the middle of moving. But eventually more than half of the business by 2007 was just people who ran out of room at home. And 15 percent of the people who rented units, were storing things they didn’t even want anymore.

The business now exceeds the revenue of Hollywood, Slate said in July. One in 11 households now uses a self-storage facility.

And even when the stored items are innocent possessions, a certain poignant sadness haunts them: They are mementos we somehow can’t live with, and yet can’t live without, and exemplify the downside of acquisition, the moment when you realize there are more bread machines, plastic lawn chairs, and treadmills than anyone could use in a lifetime.

Or they signify the thirtysomething moving back in with his parents, with nowhere to put his black leather couch. The Onion rather mischievously labeled one fictional self-storage facility in Chicago a “Museum of Personal Failure.”

This is not the picture of self storage the industry wants you to have, of course. They want you to know that today’s self-storage spaces are increasingly upscale redoubts, with landscaping boasting 30-foot waterfalls, air conditioning, and architecture that is, as one builder put it, “like walking into a custom home.”

Self storage now boasts 55-degree wine cellars, as well as capacious berths for RVs and yachts, since many homeowners associations now have restrictions against parking such things in driveways.

Indeed, the company that’s going to usher Cottage Grove into the age of storage stresses that its facility won’t look like a storage facility, the PiPress says.

“It will not look like a storage building from the outside,” Premier Storage owner Todd Jones told the paper. “It will look like an office building.”

And that’s music to the ears of Cottage Grove officials. As long as it doesn’t look like Rush.