• Image about Dave Hester
Illustrations by Gluekit

Even before the TV deluge, this underground world was rapidly expanding. In 2009, a New York Times Magazine feature stated that “the United States now has 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space.” Meanwhile, Public Storage, the behemoth of the industry, is one of the top landlords on the planet. And according to the Self Storage Association’s 2011 fact sheet: “Nearly 1 in 10 U.S. households currently rent a self-storage unit; an increase of roughly 65 percent in the last 15 years.” In short, storage, in all its incarnations, touches everyone: from Paris, Texas, to Paris Hilton, whose diaries and photos were picked up in a locker for $2,775 in 2005 (and later sold for $10 million). While many view this as profiting on the hard times of another, lumping storage buyers in the same category as banks that foreclose on down-on-their-luck homeowners, others view it as a classically American pastime on par with gold prospecting and pawn shopping.

It’s a pastime that’s got TV roots in the Antiques Roadshow and American Pickers oeuvre, and it was first exposed — though viewers don’t often recognize this — by Spike TV, which premiered Auction Hunters in November 2010, a month before Storage Wars debuted. Anchored by second-generation antique dealer and reality-TV vet Allen Haff (Clean House; My House Is Worth What?) and head-tattoed weapons expert/animal wrangler Ton Jones, Auction Hunters is the journeyman take on the business. It follows this odd couple driving their delivery van across the country as they buy lockers and sell the contents (vintage arcade games, 1958 Harley frames, the Jaws of Life) on the spot, from Vegas to Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

“The reality isn’t that there are always four guys in each other’s world, the reality is there are 40,” says Haff, adding that he thinks Hester’s made-for-TV bullying would “destroy” him in L.A. “I’ve bid against [Hester] on real units in real situations, and he’s a nice guy who sometimes overpays, but he’s got a decent structure under him.”

Haff may be right, but that hasn’t stopped Storage Wars from becoming the runaway hit of the genre, spawning its own regional spin-off (Storage Wars: Texas), not to mention copycat shows like TruTV’s Springer-esque Storage Hunters, a show deemed “fake” — allegedly via stuffed lockers, fake auctions, too much fighting — by nearly every person interviewed for this story. Storage Hunters tracks protagonist Brandon Bernier, a Massachusetts-born Golden Gloves boxer turned auction hound, as he and his wife, Lori, battle for units (with fists, and sometimes with fists full of cash) coast to coast.

The secret to Storage Wars’ success, though, is creator Thom Beers’ mix of a male-friendly format (though many women watch his shows with fervor) and iconic characters who push each exchange to hyperbole without crossing into farce or camp. Beers is undoubtedly an expert in the high-risk, high-reward arena, with 14 projects in production, including the megahits Ice Road Truckers and the Emmy Award–winning Deadliest Catch. Still, what makes any show about storage scavengers compelling?