The manager at Holloway Road, 43-year-old Fabio Biagi, has spent seven years watching over the worldly goods of all sorts of people in stages of transition: divorce, bereavement, moving house, building a business, doing a runner. His glass-walled cubicle by the loading bay is a window on to the human condition. Fabio used to work and live on site at a storage centre in Paddington Green. "When I started in this business I thought it was too weird for me," he says. "You see everybody's lives go through here."
Being in self-storage is like being a doctor. People come to you and you do your best to help. Individuals will resort to self-storage when their lives are in flux, and their possessions are unable to keep up with them. "There's no hard sell. People need us. We get private people as and when, when they're in trouble, get divorced, things like that. Some things they bring have value, affectionate value, others not. I had no idea when I first started, the things you see." Fabio leans back expansively. "At Paddington, there were a lot of rich people, but who lived in flats I suppose. In summer they kept their skis with us, in winter their snorkelling stuff."
At Holloway, you mainly get small businesses - "if you think something is going to sell well, you buy a load in and put it into storage" - and people moving house. You start to get a feel for the housing market. At the moment there's a lot of rubbish out there; people are selling high and storing their stuff until they can buy more cheaply. Facilities in central London get more students and traveller types, who use them as a cheap, long-term left-luggage locker. One at Whitechapel houses the London International Financial Futures Exchange archives. Another near Tower Bridge stored the entire contents of the Waldorf hotel during a refit.
All of them also attract their fair share of weirdos, eccentrics if you like. Ask anyone in the business. Where better to indulge the traditional British passion for privacy? Storage in the US appears to service the overflow of the expansive American personality - Sandra Bernhard has declared plans to bunk down her new baby in storage until it comes of age. What seems to thrill UK users is the privacy it offers, on the stationery-cupboard or toilet-cubicle principle: many people I spoke to as they scurried to and from their units refused to give their real names, smirking with an illicitness real or imagined. "Antiques dealer" (at Acorn in King's Cross) or "theatrical agent" (at Abacus in Hornsey) was all some storers were prepared to give away.
Obsessions that might make your home life miserable can be indulged at your convenience in a self-storage unit. One psychiatrist rents a unit simply to store dozens of US format videos he bought while working in Canada. He cannot play them on his machine at home, doesn't even have room for them, but can't bear to get rid of them. In the old sorting office at King's Cross, now a Storguard facility, a young solicitor comes in his lunch hour to play the flute he keeps in his unit there. Gregory Vlami, who has become a good friend to Fabio, rents units all over the world to store his vast array of research papers on the history of alternative medicine.
Self-storage may be a young business in this country but it's taking off fast. Pour a city's worth of people into small flats, heap on the props and detritus of their various passions, stir in a fad for minimalism and increasingly rootless, shifting lifestyles, and watch their lives overflow. That knocked-off TV, grandad's overcoat, those magazines, it's all got to go somewhere. At least until you've decided what to do with it.
A young man leans over the counter. He's after a 70sq ft unit for a couple of months. His girlfriend is on the way out, he wants to get her stuff out of the flat. Fabio nods understandingly. But he's found people always overestimate how much space their worldly goods take up. "Is it a one- bedroom flat? Then you'll need half that. I'd recommend a 7ft by 7ft. That will be pounds 91.24 per month, including insurance. You will have your own key and padlock," he explains, "free access in opening hours, just sign in and out." Pay a deposit, plus a month in advance, and the space is yours.
Few people, unless they have had cause to use it, know what self-storage is all about. Initially there's nothing to see. Long corridors, sheer padlocked doors, rank upon rank of closed, locked, private worlds. Galvanised or enamelled, sheer or corrugated, sheet metal boxes divide up the goods. A standardised commercial format that conceals the domestic, the personal.
Visitors to the exhibition Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson curated some years ago at the Acorn facility in Wembley got some idea. Anderson and Eno painted a Barbican-style line marking a route to the units which contained art works. A cupboard-sized unit swung open to reveal frantic live drills whirring on the inside of the door. A larger unit was kitted out like a bedsit, with a roll-up stubbed out on the dressing table. Piles of doll's heads. Heaps of sand. If you stepped off the line you were lost in a blank- walled labyrinth which frustrated all efforts to find hidden treasures or the exit.
But Anderson and Eno could just as well have opened up Fabio's treasure trove and charged admission. He's got telephones the size of armchairs belonging to cable TV company Nickelodeon. Olive oil distributors take huge units. The occasional carpet-fitter. Piles of a German shampoo that washes cannabis residue out of your hair. And there's the man with the cardboard box business - "a very good enterprise, that". Self-storage is a hold-all for things far ahead or far behind the times.
The job exerts quite a fascination for the people who work in self-storage. They tend to stay either for three months, or for life. Even Gwen Paige, a perfectly pragmatic Canadian businesswoman in her fifties, is not immune to the speculative allure of a closed box. They call her "the queen of self-storage", and her office at the King's Cross branch of Storguard looks like a Florida mansion reconstructed in a Swiss vault: a treasure trove of gilt, mirrors, polished wood and antique finishes. It's Saturday at her other branch on the North Circular, and she points to the bank of video monitors behind reception. "Look at that man with his Jag, there." The dark bulk of the car flickers on one screen. She points to another. "That's his unit." The man walks into the frame, bends over a pile of boxes in the corridor. "He's been there for hours. Who knows what he's got in there?" She stares at the screen and almost squeals. "What is he doing?" He disappears into his unit.
Video surveillance cameras hang on every corner, so all communal parts can be observed. Only the interior of each unit is inviolate. And in the night, sensors can pick up the progress of a spider down a wall, the alarm waking staff from their suburban beds to drive through the city and check every corner.
When Gwen Paige came to Britain a decade ago she was amazed by how underdeveloped the self-storage business was. In North America it has been huge for years. Purpose-built drive-in sites which you need a golf buggy to cross are the norm. Over here, it's still just converted warehouses. The money-making potential (high capital outlay, reliable long-term returns) is only now being exploited. Of the three storage giants jostling for space near the front of the Yellow Pages - Abacus, Abbey and Acorn - Acorn has just bought Abacus for a reported pounds 43m, while Acorn itself was bought this summer by US firm Security Capital. Membership of the fledgling Self Storage Association, which represents about 60 per cent of operators, has increased tenfold in a decade.
A couple of lads are unloading a white laminated wardrobe outside Abbey. They're in a hurry. It crashes and splits open, spilling several weighty cardboard boxes of LPs. Fabio looks pained. But not at their carelessness. "Why put something like that in storage?" he asks. "It would cost less to buy another wardrobe." People who work in self-storage sometimes cannot understand why someone would pay a minimum of pounds 10 a week, for years, to store some of the things they do: "They bring you their most prized possessions, or a load of junk, and sometimes it's hard to tell the difference."
Dave works in the music business, and when he was sent to New York put his teenage record collection in storage, revisiting it every couple of months to flip through the boxes, pull some out of their sleeves, although he had nothing to play them on. Eventually he moved to New York for good and, unwilling to pay to have them shipped out, sold the lot. He got less than he'd paid to store them all those months.
But in such a materialist age, seeing the sum of your life disappear into a space as small as a chest freezer can be traumatic. Film journalist George, 29, moved earlier this year from a large room in Primrose Hill to a smaller but funkier place in Notting Hill. Not a major move by any means, no divorce or flood or similar upheaval involved. But it's taking weeks to get round to getting his stuff back out of storage, and living without all his books and pictures he feels a less fully rounded human being. "Normally when you bring someone back, your room says something about who you are. But at the moment I've got nothing. It's very disconcerting."
Fabio recognises the syndrome. "When people store they are under stress, you see, especially on the day of a move." One of Fabio's clients is the ex-tenant of the flat above the Everyman cinema in Hampstead, who was forced out in a hurry after four years there when the cinema abruptly "closed down for redevelopment". His life is now on hold in a box in the Holloway Road. "I can tell you, he's not a happy man, not at all."
Another storer wanted to get something from his unit just as Fabio was locking up, and threatened to call the police when he couldn't. Later he went to see Fabio's boss and told her he was going to sue. It turned out he had been going for an interview the following day and his suit was in the storage unit. "I'd have let him in if I'd known," sighs Fabio. Did he get the job? "Sadly, he did not."
Quite a few people store for years on end, and tend to be those whose home lives can no longer contain a burgeoning obsession. Fabio recalls a compulsive book-collector who rented a 80ft sq unit into which he threw unread books by the bagful. "Eventually the unit was in danger of collapsing, so one day I said to him: 'It's an addiction, face it, you have to get some shelves. You're destroying your unit and those of people near by.' Now, he was a very nervous person who lived in a hostel which had told him to get rid of the books as they were a fire risk. In the end we fixed him up with some shelves. I think he's still there. He's a compulsive smoker too."
The small scale of self-storage facilities in the UK means it's still possible for the likes of Fabio to keep an eye on their transient populations. North American storage units are often more like garages, with 24-hour access on a motel room principle. Thomas Harris's bestseller Silence of the Lambs has a memorable description: "Split City Mini-Storage is a bleak place the wind blows through. Like the Sunday divorce flight from La Guardia to Jurez it is a service industry to the mindless Brownian movement in our population. It resembles a military installation: 30 acres of long buildings divided by fire walls into units the size of a generous single garage. The place is surrounded by a double wall of high hurricane fence, and dogs patrol between the fences 24 hours a day." Harris has Clarice Starling jemmy open the door of one unit to find the severed head Hannibal Lecter has left in a jar inside a dusty Packard limo.
Even in the land of warm beer, visiting a self-storage unit can be quite a chilling experience. Acorn's King's Cross depot, in the railway arches on St Pancras Road, is only yards from the arch Prime Suspect used as a location for some particularly grisly murders.
The manager, the dapper Kieran Kain, looks blank. "It's just ordinary people here, really." He thinks again. "Did have that bloke in the other day who wanted to store himself. Needed somewhere to sleep and wanted to know how much a unit was." Earlier in the day someone had called, wanting to store 50,000 toilet rolls. And yes, there is drugs and porn, too. People who always pay their bills on time and in cash stand out a mile. These days, managers are also wary of single men who visit their units with a child in tow.
But in the well-lit archives room, where Paul and Steve from a Camden solicitors are searching for papers, the atmosphere is like that of a sixth-form library. In the neighbouring stacks Twix wrappers have been stuffed into the collapsing boxes of other small businesses. On their tea breaks Paul and Steve snort over the taxi receipts from Alas Smith and Jones, giggle at stills from Aspects of Love.
Walking the short distance back to reception, the atmosphere cools. There are worrying machinery noises coming from behind a pile of packing cases. It's the Italian antique dealers who refused to be interviewed and have barricaded themselves in. A cloying smell of rising dough and baking bread, which must be coming from a bakery unit a few arches up, passes through the ventilation system, seeping into row after row of padlocked metal containers. Suddenly, intense claustrophobia sets in. Luckily, the huge steel security door is wedged open. Outside in the sunshine, where a plain white van is disgorging dozens of Brother fax machines, there is solid traffic, people sweltering patiently inside their hot little cars with the windows shut against fumes.
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