Tales from the storage unit: inside a booming industry
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Adrian Kostromski was eight when he started collecting artefacts from the first and second world wars. Growing up in Britain, and then Poland, he travelled all over Europe with his father, digging for relics: helmets, badges, uniforms. By the time he was 16, he was selling items at car boot sales. Eventually, he was making more money from his online business, AKM Militaria, than from his work in recruitment. Last year, aged 26, he quit his job and started selling military artefacts full time.
As Kostromski’s business expanded, he soon ran out of space at home, so he started keeping some stock in storage. Initially, he took out a 10 sq ft locker at the Charlton branch of Safestore, in south-east London. Today, he has a 100 sq ft unit — a private room, essentially — containing somewhere in the region of 900 items. The shelves are lined with hand grenades and shells, Kostromski’s speciality; a few enormous Livens mortars, from the first world war, sit on the floor.
A poster on the door to Kostromski’s unit lists prohibited items: “no explosives, firearms, ammunition”. But because his stock doesn’t contain active explosives, “none of this is ammunition”, he explains. Earlier this year, however, he was arrested in Dover on his way back from France. He was carrying two empty grenades and a shell case — which had been examined by French customs — and spent three days in custody. A police team went to his storage unit and stayed for two days, X-raying everything, but didn’t charge Kostromski. He had warned the Safestore staff about the raid, so they didn’t kick him out.
Kostromski is one of hundreds of customers at the Charlton store. Across the UK, there are now about 1,160 indoor self-storage sites like it, according to the Self-Storage Association (SSA), plus 345 sites offering outdoor containers, serving a total of about 450,000 customers. The industry has an annual turnover of about £750m, and the amount of storage space has almost doubled in a decade, to more than 44m sq ft last year — equivalent to 0.7 sq ft for every person in the country. That’s more than anywhere else in Europe, though it’s still far behind the US, where the figure is an astonishing 7 sq ft per person.
If you’ve spent time in a British city recently, you’ve probably seen a self-storage site. There are the bright, bulky warehouses overlooking busy roads; the hidden spaces in converted car parks. You might spot one in an industrial park in the suburbs, but you’ll also find them in central London. Yet while more and more people put their things in self-storage, or learn about it through TV shows such as Storage Hunters, others remain baffled by it. When I visited the Nottingham branch of Big Yellow Self-Storage last month, a man from the local water company came in. “Have you got many of these places?” he asked, clearly bemused. Ninety-six, he was told. “What do people store in here?”
Most of what you’ll find is less exciting than Kostromski’s shells and mortars. In a country where space of any kind is at a premium, it’s the things we can’t stop buying, even though our homes are full. It’s the goods belonging to a start-up taking its first steps. It’s the possessions, accumulated over a lifetime, of someone leaving something behind or starting something new.
In 1977, Doug Hampson was driving through Los Angeles when he first saw a self-storage site. Two years later, after returning to Britain, he opened Abbey Self-Storage, the country’s first chain. More followed over the next two decades, some of them, like Abbey, deliberately bearing names that began with the letter “A” (Access, A&A), enabling them to appear at the front of the Yellow Pages. Yet as late as 1995, when Lok’nStore opened its first site, the industry was “almost non-existent”, says Andrew Jacobs, the company’s CEO. Big Yellow and Safestore — now Britain’s two biggest self-storage firms — were founded in 1998. The following year, the US company Shurgard opened its first store in the UK.
The service offered by self-storage operators is fundamentally very simple. If you choose a dedicated, indoor site, as most do, all that really varies is the size of the unit and the length of occupancy. Customers tend to overestimate how much space they require and underestimate how much it will cost. But once they’ve settled on a unit, they can move their belongings in quickly — that same day, even. If you need to move out, you might only need to give seven days’ notice. Access to the site itself varies: typically, customers will be able to enter during daytime hours, when staff are present, but many offer 24-hour access.
In the early days, sites tended to be converted buildings away from main roads, in everything from old abattoirs to bowling alleys. Increasingly, however, the industry has come to prize new, purpose-built warehouses. Location has changed too: Big Yellow pioneered prominent sites, painted yellow and emblazoned with a giant logo. “By getting a high-profile site on a main road, you’ve got free marketing,” James Gibson, its founder, told me. “That’s your billboard.”
Stepping inside a storage unit feels like entering a vacuum: cool, sterile, sealed off from the world. It’s easy to walk around without seeing anyone — according to this year’s SSA survey, just 23 per cent of customers visit their unit weekly — which gives the spaces an eerie quality. Signs remind customers that they can’t store living animals or plants, and it’s hard to imagine anything surviving, cut off from fresh air and natural light. Still, Tom Hayward, the manager of the Nottingham Big Yellow, told me that one of the most common questions is, “Can I stay the night?” Last year, an American man posted a video, showing how he had lived in his unit for two months by installing a bed, sofa and kitchen; he was kicked out after he was discovered.
If self-storage sites tend to blur into one, an independent firm in York, Inner Space Stations, stands out. A large model of the Optimus Prime character from Transformers stands beside the entrance of its main store, on a busy road. A Dalek is visible through a window; a model of a Star Wars stormtrooper guards the reception. The sizes of the units correspond to planets in the solar system: the smallest lockers have an image of Mercury on the door, while the biggest show Jupiter. “It’s just making it fun,” says Graham Kennedy, the owner. “Quite often there’s a stressful reason for going into storage. So I’ve tried to lighten it.”
There are plenty of triggers for putting things in storage. “We deal with the three most stressful things: moving, death and divorce,” says Susie Fabre, who runs A&A Storage, an independent firm in north London. Of those three, it’s moving that’s at the heart of self-storage: it accounts for 39 per cent of personal (as opposed to business) customers, according to the SSA survey. This can be as straightforward as a student locking up their possessions for the summer, but it can also be a painful experience.
Chris Fear has kept a unit at the Safestore in Charlton since the start of the year. She had spent six years caring for her mother, who was suffering from dementia, and remained in the house after her mother’s death. She had wanted to sell her own flat but was unable to find the co-owner, a former partner with whom she had broken up more than 20 years ago. Last year, he got in touch to say that he too wanted to sell, and Fear had to move out all her things — more quickly than she wanted to. “It was just awful,” she says. “There were so many memories.” There was no room for it all in her mother’s house, so she got in touch with Safestore. At that point, she says, “I was really in a mess.” But storing everything allowed her to buy time: “I needed a year, really, to even think everything through.” For now, she doesn’t spend any time in the unit. What matters is that everything can just sit there, safely, until she’s ready to revisit it.
The staff at self-storage sites — usually a team of just a few people — are accustomed to working with customers experiencing upheaval or distress. When I visited the Big Yellow in Nottingham, a man who I’ll call Pete was moving in. He sat down in reception to register and quickly explained why he was there. “My partner’s kicking me out,” he said. “She’s basically said that after 20 years, she can’t cope with my MS.” He had a job in the public sector but hadn’t been able to work for months, because of his condition. A bald, bearded man, with intense grey eyes, Pete was surprisingly chirpy; it was his sister, there to help him move, who looked worn out, as if bearing his sadness for him.
To reassure Pete, the store’s assistant manager, Amy Bragg, opened up about her own life. When Pete said that his ex-partner wouldn’t let him see their dog, she talked about her Labrador; when he talked about the break-up, she mentioned a relationship of her own that had ended. “It’s like a counselling session here,” Pete’s sister said. There was levity to Bragg’s approach. When she read out the terms and conditions, she adapted them for Pete. “You agree that you are not going to store any goods that are perishable, living — including plants,” she said, “or ex-partners.” Afterwards, I asked her how she dealt with that kind of situation. “It’s always best to be positive,” she said. If customers get emotional, that’s fine: “You can have a cup of tea, have a cry.”
For many people, self-storage is a short-term solution to a pressing need. Other customers, however, simply consider it part of their daily life. I was told about a woman living in a shared house who kept her clothes in a west London storage unit, and went there every morning to get dressed for the day, as if to her own walk-in wardrobe. More than half of the people interviewed for the SSA survey said they had been using their current storage unit for at least a year; a third had been using it for three years or more.
Some might be storing things that they don’t want others to find: I heard about a unit that a man had filled with porn magazines. Between 2003 and 2004, a terrorist cell stored a bag of ammonium nitrate, which can be used to make explosives, at a London branch of Access Self-Storage; the plot was foiled when a member of staff contacted the police.
More often, customers put things in storage because they lack space: almost half say they have no room for the items at home. Since 2016, Anne-Marie Chevannes has been renting a garage-sized, 100 sq ft unit in Charlton, filled with things she has brought from home. Every week, she goes to a car boot sale, where she sells what she can from the unit. “This would be a whole room in the house that I just couldn’t give up,” she says. Before storage, she says, “the house was absolutely packed, the garage was full”. Now, at least, she has space for the car.
Houses used to have spaces of their own — basements, lofts — where one could store things. But as demand for property has increased, many of these have been converted to create more rooms. Neal Hudson, director at Residential Analysts, says that the rising proportion of the population renting privately (which has increased from 14 per cent in 2009 to 20 per cent in 2017) has contributed to the lack of storage space, as has the renewed popularity of city centres. “With city-centre living, your housing space is smaller, so you maybe don’t have the storage space that you might need,” he says. “With private renting, you’re more likely to be moving around frequently. You might have less space, particularly because you may be sharing, so you’ve only got a bedroom to keep your stuff in.”
The popularity of storage can’t simply be explained by lack of space, though. If that were the case, the industry wouldn’t be so successful in the US, where it experienced annual growth of 7 per cent between 2012 and 2017, according to IBISWorld, even though the average home there is bigger than anywhere else in the world. It’s also about how many possessions we have. Frank Trentmann, author of Empire of Things, points to the accumulation of clothing and electrical items over the past few decades. But the rise also reflects wider social changes, he says. “You used to buy a table or a bed when you married, and then you kept it until your partner died. Now, you have partnerships changing much more often, more flexible family arrangements. So people end up having multiple versions of the same article.”
For Frederic de Ryckman de Betz, who owns Attic Storage in London, self-storage reveals something about human nature. “We have this human condition called hoarding that we can’t seem to get away from,” he says. “If you have a studio flat, you will run out of space. And if you have a four-bedroom house, you will come to a point where you run out of space.”
Josh Harland, 23, keeps a small unit at Inner Space Stations, where he stores old equipment from his days as a semi-professional motorcycle racer, as well as motorcycle parts that he sells online. There are things — such as tennis rackets, or suits — that he only needs occasionally, so he doesn’t keep them at home. “I don’t really like having a lot of mess at my house,” he told me. “Whereas if it’s out of the house, it’s out of mind.”
Harland doesn’t find the cost of storage burdensome. “It’s cheap enough to have on a permanent basis,” he says. But some of the customers I met did complain about the expense. Prices vary by size and location — a 45 sq ft unit, roughly half the size of a garage, would typically cost between £80 and £140 a month, with rates highest in London. On top of that, customers must pay to insure their goods, which tend not to be covered by home insurance policies.
People I spoke to in the industry conceded that putting things in storage for a long stretch is expensive — sometimes dauntingly so. Yet de Ryckman de Betz argues that it can still be cheaper than the alternatives. “It’s quite a small cost if you compare it to renting out a spare room,” he says. Some people do fall behind on payments, and at a certain point an operator will take action. A customer might move to a smaller unit; they might move out, paying at least some of what they owe in exchange for their possessions. And, if no arrangement can be reached, as a last resort their items will be sold or disposed of.
For business customers, self-storage is a different equation. Businesses account for a quarter of all self-storage customers in the UK, but they take up 39 per cent of the storage space. Sometimes, it’s as simple as having an address for deliveries; others use theirs as a stockroom. At the Big Yellow in Nottingham, I met Ade, an Ecolab pest-control technician with a reassuringly no-nonsense manner. The firm has a unit there, filled with traps and repellent. When he pointed out the cockroach bait, I said I hoped he didn’t have to use it often. “I’m going to do a cockroach job next,” he replied, laughing. The unit serves 12 Ecolab technicians across the region, who work from home and keep stock in their vans. The Big Yellow staff take deliveries for the company; every week, the technicians come to replenish their supplies.
The growth of self-storage also owes something to the surge in start-ups. The number of British companies increased from 3.5 million in 2000 to 5.7 million in 2017, according to government statistics, and Big Yellow says 60 per cent of its business customers are now start-ups. Some firms actually rent office space from self-storage operators: the huge Battersea branch of Safestore has an entire building filled with offices. One of these is occupied by Libby London, a clothing brand founded by Libby Hart. “When you’re a start-up, you start on your kitchen table,” she told me. “But where do you put all of your stuff? One sure-fire way to divorce is to keep it all at home.” The site allows her to rent both an office and storage: one unit on the same floor as the office holds stock that’s ready to be dispatched; another contains material and fabric.
For many firms — and start-ups in particular — the appeal of storage is flexibility. Renting an office might require a 12-month lease; in storage, it’s easy to up or downsize, and moving out altogether only requires one or two week’s notice. Security is also important. Nutkhut, a performing-arts company, keeps three units at the Safestore in Charlton. Its artistic director, Ajay Chhabra, showed me an old golf buggy that had been transformed into a sort of steampunk motorcycle named “Swyron”. Having spent six years building it, he wants it to be safe. “The stuff that we’ve got here is our special stuff,” he says.
The self-storage industry likes to think long term. Tom Hayward, at the Big Yellow in Nottingham, sees students — a key source of summer business — as potential customers for life. “They’ll need storage again and again,” he said. “Boy meets girl — boy’s stuff ends up in storage. Buying their first property, then perhaps first child. Later on, perhaps going into an old people’s home.” All told, he said, a young customer could use storage on five occasions over their lifetime.
Indeed, the belief within the industry is that people only have to discover self-storage to realise how useful it can be. “Like a mobile phone or fax machine, you didn’t know how much you needed it until you started using it,” says Andrew Jacobs, the founder of Lok’nStore. Awareness is still low — according to a YouGov survey from February, only 46 per cent of people know at least a reasonable amount about it. As knowledge slowly increases, the industry will probably continue to expand.
There are obstacles. The competition for new sites is intense. “If we look at a site, it could well be one that a discount food retailer is looking at, car showrooms, budget hotels, student housing,” says Jacobs. Still, 48 sites are expected to open this year, according to the SSA, and 47 next year. James Gibson, of Big Yellow, insists the industry will keep serving a fundamental need. “As long as people and businesses have stuff,” he says, “you can’t store it in China.”
The man from the water company in Nottingham did have an alternative suggestion. “Before, you’d just store it in your mate’s house, wouldn’t you?” But his experience of self-storage had changed him. “My mate’s keeping his caravan in my front drive,” he said. “I should have brought it here.”
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