14 years ago, I rented a 5 x 10 unit #147 at East Hampton Self-Storage Company. Over all that time, I paid well over $15K on that unit, which contained things priceless to me -- clothing, household and other personal effects, files, sophisticated electronic equipment, and the ashes of my late dog and cats, plus research notes, documents, etc. essential to a long-running medical malpractice case and to finding a repair procedure for a botched surgery. Through everything that has happened in the years since, it was always a solace to know that those things were there safe in that sacred space, and I remember literally crawling up the stairs of the storage facility with my leg in a cast after I was seriously injured in an accident a year after renting the space.
I always paid the rent, and if there were late fees, I paid them, too. Moreover, I subsequently rented five other units at that facility, and the facility and company were making quite a bit of money from me. Several years ago, Uncle Bob's Self-Storage bought that storage facility and Southampton Self-Storage, where I also had rented a 5x10 unit. I spent a tremendous amount of money to keep my things safe, and over a long period of time. I told the facility at East Hampton, many times, that I was concerned over safety of my things there in case there were a hurricane, and that the unit 147 was the most important of all to me and contained my dog's ashes and important documentation. There is no way they could have imagined that I would ever abandon it or not pay. About a year ago, the manager of the East Hampton facility asked me if I would be willing to move the contents of unit 147 to another unit, because someone with an adjoining unit wanted two adjoining units! She knew that I was out of town and that if I could be back there to do something like that, I wouldn't still have things in storage there in the first place, and aside from that, why should any customer ever be asked such a question. Then, she informed me that she would no longer accept payment from a third party who sometimes insisted on taking care of the storage bill for me in return for time and effort I was devoting to their concerns.
Like everyone else who has things in storage, I was very busy with other things and had no time to argue with the facility manager, whose attitude was chronically unpleasant to deal with, about that, and made sure to take care of the bills myself. This past fall, my elderly mother fell ill, and required nurses, aides, etc., plus my help, and when the manager told me that she would need payment by Friday that week, I made sure to get the money together to send and arrive on time, and planned to go out and send it by overnight mail or fedex as soon as the aide arrived that afternoon, and then the aide didn't show up and I couldn't leave my mother alone; I called and explained what was going on and that they would have the payment the morning after; I got liened for all six units, a total of $700-$800, anyway.
I paid the lien fees, because I always pay whatever the storage facility says I owe, and my things are important to me. But that put me behind on the storage rental by almost two months, and now my mother was in hospital. I'd always asked, when I called to make sure I had the total right when I paid, to be given a total for all six units up to the same date. Somehow, however, the manager let not only this unit, which I'd told them many times was the most precious to me, but one or two others, lag behind a month over the others. But she told me she was not going to lien me or put my things up for auction, and the last communication I had with her, I thanked her for that.
Now it was December, and the lien fees she'd levied had put me behind on the unit at the Southampton facility, and I was in the hospital, where I'd been daily since my mother went into hospital at the beginning of November, at the bank and post office on the hospital's ground floor, doing what was necessary to get the Southampton unit paid, and called the Southampton facility to make sure I was sending the right amount, let them know it was on the way, etc. The manager there, who had always been pleasant and whom I'd told my mother was in hospital and that the lien fees at the company's other facility had put me behind, decided that now was the time, after my having been a customer there since 1993, to start yelling at me that I was going to be auctioned, I was going to be evicted from the facility (how could they do both, anyway?), etc.
Gee, I thought the customer's business was valued, etc....and I'd been paying them for 14 years without their having had the unit vacant or to have had to go to the trouble of rerenting it all that time. If I had had thought that anything of mine at the East Hampton facility, whose manager had told me I was not going to be liened and auctioned, was going to be auctioned on that date, I'd have called them; as it was, I was reeling from being yelled at while I was knocking myself out to send money from a hospital where my mother was in bad shape (in fact, she coded a few days later, and thank God she pulled through, but as some reading this may have experienced, it takes a lot of energy and fighting with a hospital sometimes as health care proxy to make sure that happens, especially when the patient is elderly).
When I called the East Hampton facility some days later to make sure I had the amount right of what I was sending them for all six units, the assistant manager read me the total for each of five units, but 147 was not on the list. I asked the assistant manager why it was missing, and she said she didn't know, and that the manager wasn't there that day, and having been told by the manager that I wasn't going to be liened and auctioned, I didn't believe it had been. One would think that if one of a customer's units has been auctioned, the records in the office would indicate that. But no -- I was just told what I owed on the remaining units, and that the assistant manager had no idea why that one was missing from the list. The next time I called, the manager was there, and she told me it had been auctioned; my reaction was shock, and then I asked her if she were sure, and she said she had seen it auctioned, and I reminded her that she had told me I was not going to be liened and auctioned, and she said she had told me twice, which is not true. My next reaction was to ask who was the auctioneer, how could I find the person who bought it, and she kept saying, like a parrot, "That's all confidential." I told her I was going to have to call Buffalo, where Uncle Bob's corporate headquarters are, and then I called information for that number, and information gave me the number of a store in or near Buffalo, where I told the lady who answered the phone what I was calling about; she said that I'd reached the facility she manages, looked up the store number and manager's name of the facility in East Hampton and told me she does the same job at her facility as the manager at the East Hampton does at that one, and that what is supposed to be done in such cases is that the customer whose things have been auctioned is told that their name and contact information can be given to the auctioneer, who then can contact the buyer, and that the manager of the East Hampton facility had been supposed to tell me that. Then she suggested I call the corporate headquarters and gave me their number.
I'd found Uncle Bob's (which is under the umbrella of Sovran Self-Storage and constitutes most of Sovran's business) web site the day before, which was a Sunday, and emailed them, describing what had happened and noting that the manager of the East Hampton facility had given me the impression, over the years, that Uncle Bob's was a cold, uncaring, heartless company, which had discouraged me from complaining to the corporate headquarters about her over the years, but that I thought they might prove to be otherwise and could they please help me be reunited with my things, and they should know what had happened.
After all, by auctioning my unit, they had lost money, and the unit still had not been re-rented. I received a call back from Uncle Bob himself, the CEO, who offered to call the area manager, but asked me if I wanted to do that because sometimes when a higher-up calls such an employee the employee might be less willing to help, feeling "irritated," and be vindictive! I pointed out that if anyone had the right to be irritated, I did, and that if such an employee would be vindictive, something was wrong, wasn't it. He mentioned that people call up when they have been auctioned and yell at the corporate people and tell them they are terrible mean people, etc.; I was not doing that, as I wanted to give the company every opportunity to remedy the situation and was most interested in being re-united with my things. He also mentioned having had experiences in which he'd been treated cruelly by people in the company; I couldn't quite put that bit together and understand, but I was focused on other issues and didn't think to ask him to elaborate.
He said that if I felt I'd been treated unfairly, he'd call the area manager, which he did, and the area manager was a little more helpful after that, but not enough. I also heard back from the cofounder of the company, who called me after checking his messages while he was away on vacation, and he expressed concern for my mother's health and wished her well, etc., and I heard back from someone in Marketing who contacted the auctioneer, and I left a message for the company director who was the direct superior of the area supervisor, but his approach to the situation wasn't helpful. Subsequent to all this, I contacted the head of human resources of the company, and she sounded sympathetic and when I said I'd be glad to reimburse whoever had bought my things, she asked how much I'd be willing to give them (!), and she called back later saying she had contacted the guy himself, who she said had told her that he would never come to an Uncle Bob's auction again because there had been nothing of value to him in my things. Why anyone would go to a storage auction, pay money for things that they know they don't know what they are going to turn out to be until after the fact, and then complain because there wasn't a Rembrandt or a diamond necklace or such in the unit, though the auction had caused anguish to the owner, is a mystery.
She also suggested that I pursue the matter with an attorney, and use a private investigator, etc.! For whatever reason, the corporate people gave the impression of being nice and sympathetic and trying to be helpful, and early on I was told that in instances where there are ashes, for example, in a unit they do try to help, and that sometimes it even happens that the customer is able to buy back and be reunited with their things, but I still don't have my things back, and I don't have to tell anyone else who's been through such a thing how distressed I've been, and paralyzed by anguish -- while having a parent in hospital to look out for, no less, and in fact my mom had a couple of setbacks in hospital as a result of my having been so distraught that I wasn't able to focus and be as effective as her constant advocate in the hospital as I had been. I ended up having to go to the emergency room, with actual physical symptoms, and be medicated and have to stay there and given prescription and advised to consider crisis counselling to get through this; I'd rather put the energy into pursuing the matter, and the recovery of my things, with the assistance of an attorney who is not having to live through it and can address it as aggressively as necessary.
As I told the corporate executives of the company, the ordeal left me unable to eat, sleep, work, function, and physically sick, and anyone who's been through this can attest that as a result one has further financial costs, as well. Meanwhile, the storage company ends up with an empty unit, without the rent the customer would have paid, and having to go to the trouble to rerent the unit. When I told the corporate people how the facility manager had liened me, they all said, "What? She did that for one day?" and when I pointed out that the company would have made more money by not doing it, they agreed. The store manager, however, doesn't seem to understand what the company's real financial interests are, and I had to laugh when I pointed out to the area manager that obviously I no longer feel like continuing as a customer, which will leave them with more empty units that have to be re-rented, and he said that I couldn't be sure they wouldn't be re-rented right away; this is February, and not exactly peak moving and storage season in this climate.
I'd much rather have left my things where they were, and if it hadn't been convenient to have them there I'd have moved them elsewhere when Uncle Bob's -- which inherited me as a customer, I didn't originally choose them as my storage facility -- bought the facilities in East Hampton and Southampton. Further, the area manager insulted me by asking more than once if I was sure the items I was concerned about were in that particular unit. As if a person wouldn't be concerned about whatever they had in storage no matter what it was, or as if I wouldn't know what was in what unit -- in other words, as if I were as dumb as who was responsible for auctioning my stuff and who can't imagine anyone would be more intelligent. When someone has been paying a storage company money for a long time, it's counterintuitive to auction them, because they've always paid, and if they are late, the company makes even more money, which doesn't cost them anything -- they are already paying the employees who do the paperwork, and who don't have to spend time and energy rerenting the unit. On top of which, they charge the customer huge fees to put them in lien and cause them to lose the possessions they entrusted to the facility for safekeeping.
Anyway, I've learned that there is another facility a mile or two down the road from the East Hampton one which opened a few years ago -- I hadn't known it existed because I hadn't been back there -- and it does NOT auction, does not believe in doing that, prefers to work with customers, and says it does not work the way big companies do. I don't see why big companies would be any more entitled to auction and do something that obviously feels unethical to other operators than small companies would; it's for their own convenience, but ultimately it costs them goodwill, business, and revenue, and if they can't get employees who don't pull stunts like what was pulled on me, and can't supervise and train them properly, and instill them with a sense of what's good for the business overall, they have no business buying up facilities and operating things as they do.
Then, having gained their business from the phenomenon of people having whatever circumstances in their lives that caused them to be their customers in the first place, they claim "legality" despite there being valid legal challenges to their doing such things, and take advantage of the phenomenon of victims of their practices often being so destroyed and feeling and rendered helpless that they are discouraged from fighting back. Well, they have a fight on their hands from me, one way or another, and I applaud and am grateful for every bit of energy anyone else is devoting to fighting such nonsense. As for those who attend and buy at such auctions, all I can say is that I'll never buy anything second-hand that could have gotten into the marketplace via a storage auction again -- that's another element of awareness that needs to be raised in the public's consciousness.
Pittsford, New York