SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — The dusty, narrow wheel and chrome fender poking out from the blanket inside the cramped storage locker didn't look like much, stacked underneath the trappings of life left behind.
But after three televisions, a suitcase full of neatly folded Levi's jeans, several small paintings, some wooden chairs, a mid-sized pet carrier, a plastic jug full of used motor oil, a portable fish finder and a pair of dentures were removed from the storage locker, it was pretty clear this $800 investment was going to be a good one.
"That's the wow factor, baby," exclaimed South Shore resident Dan'l Preston after uncovering what his father, John Preston, ascertained to be a largely original, 1960s-era Triumph motorcycle.
The find created a buzz at an early January storage locker auction at Kingsbury Self Storage in Stateline, Nev., which attracted about 50 people hoping to make a quick buck off the contents of units whose renters had fallen behind on their payments.
If the motorcycle was the type he suspected, it could be worth $10,000 or more, John Preston said.
A self-proclaimed 40-year picker, Preston acknowledged storage locker purchases aren't always lucrative. And the cost of buying a storage unit is more than monetary.
"It's a lot of work, you gotta clean it out," Preston said. He recounted one locker filled from top to bottom with shoe boxes, each containing a single stuffed animal.
Shows like A&E's Storage Wars and Spike's Auction Hunters, based on the premise of purchasing abandoned storage lockers, have caused a boom in the popularity for storage locker auctions.
"The shows have been making it crazy," said auctioneer Thomas Hayward, who recalled driving down from Reno for a South Shore auction a few years ago and turning right back around after not a single bidder showed up.
An absence of bidders certainly wasn't the case on this particular morning, when the large group of people — most wielding flashlights — showed up to the storage facility to bid on 10 storage lockers.
"I want to welcome everybody to Occupy Stateline," Hayward jokingly told the gathered masses. "I didn't know so many people would show up to Stateline."
After Hayward set some ground rules, the narrow rows of storage lockers at the facility were jammed with collectors, buyers looking to fill thrift store shelves and some people who were just curious to see how it all worked.
The units were opened one by one and potential bidders filed by, peering into the unlit caverns containing all types of household goods and trying to glean hints about the overall worth of their contents.
Bidders are not allowed to touch or move items in the locker prior to buying them, so it's a guessing game whether a storage locker contains items of value or, as in one unit, a five-gallon container half full of empty cigarette lighters.
Some of the lockers were so tightly packed, it was impossible to see more than a few inches into them.
After the procession of bidders passed by a unit, a hushed chatter would build, with the louder voices dismissing particular lockers as worthless and potential bidders quietly calculating how much they were willing to spend.
Then came the classic staccato auctioneer voice of Hayward, who built excitement until all but one buyer bowed out on each unit.
Most lockers went for several hundred dollars and seemed, to the untrained eye, to hover in value between the "wow" factor and well below the breaking even point.
The lowest priced unit went for 25 cents. And the buyer was almost halfway to turning a profit after finding a dime among the litter that included a bottle of nail polish remover, tent poles, hand warmers and a mostly empty bag of psilocybin mushrooms.
In another unit, a small guitar amplifier caught the eye of South Shore resident Rob Rick. He said he was hoping its six-stringed counterpart was somewhere nearby after dropping $350 on the unit.
No such luck, at least initially, but the autographed Yogi Berra and Don Larsen photograph from Larsen's 1956 World Series perfect game put Rick well on his way to being in the black. Similar items were going for up to $350 on eBay that week.
But Rick, who has purchased lockers in the past, acknowledged buying storage units isn't always a big money-maker. He said he's generally ended up making a little bit of money on each of his purchases.
The really good stuff gets sold, the collectibles find a place in his home and the rest makes its way to the dump, Rick said.
But he was all smiles Wednesday after the cursory glance at his newly bought property revealed several more pieces of memorabilia near the autographed photo.
"That's worth some money right there," Rick said.
Information from: Tahoe Daily Tribune, http://www.tahoedailytribune.com/