SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Bianca Karres and Anne Williams stared into the darkened storage locker. They'd just paid $1,050 for its contents, but had little idea what they were.
About all they could see was a wall of wood, leather and medieval-looking metal blocking the entrance.
They guessed it was the side of a big piece of furniture. A desk maybe? Hauled from the unit, it turned out to be a bar.
"It's beautiful," Karres said excitedly. "Wow, that looks like copper."
Along with scores of other hopefuls, Karres and Williams showed up last week at self-storage facilities in Orangevale, Calif., and Auburn, Calif., to bid on the contents of dozens of lockers seized after renters stopped paying.
Storage auctions used to draw only small groups of regulars. But the success of cable reality shows A&E's "Storage Wars" and Spike's "Auction Hunters" has turned a little-known pursuit into a popular phenomenon.
"It's just gotten crazier with the TV shows," said Don Krajewski of Carmichael, who attended last week's auction at Mini Stor Self Storage in Orangevale. "You keep thinking it will calm down, but it doesn't."
Enthusiasts have more lockers to bid on these days, too. The economic downturn and foreclosures have left people storing belongings and unable to keep up with rent, which averages about $100 to $200 a month.
Bidders at last week's auctions jammed stifling corridors and waited in line in the hot sun to get a brief glimpse of a locker's contents from the doorway. Then they bid hundreds of dollars on someone else's stored stuff.
They didn't know until later if they'd bought trash or treasures.
"It's like Christmas, dude," Krajewski said. "You never know what you're going to find."
The auctions at the Mini Stor Self Storage facilities in Auburn and Orangevale drew about 150 to 200 people each and sold off the contents of 31 units.
They were some of the biggest local auctions in recent memory, organizers and attendees said.
Karres and Williams were among the bidders.
The friends just opened a store in Roseville, Calif., called The Pink House, which focuses on selling items gleaned from self-storage units.
Their winning bid of $1,050 bought them a unit crammed with boxes and other items heaped haphazardly.
A quick initial inspection yielded a pile of dirty towels, a pornographic magazine and some oversized plastic beer bottles.
Later the women uncovered a football autographed by Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice. They also found a collection of bayonets and a box of whips and other sex toys.
They wore gloves to look through the items.
"You almost have to," Karres said with a grimace.
By selling the football, the bayonets and the bar, they figured they'd make enough to break even and then some.
They planned to take some of the leftover stuff to the dump and to donate other items to charity.
Several days later, they still hadn't gotten through all the contents.
"It's fun. It's exciting," Williams said. "The biggest treasures are the ones we open up later."
The auctions work like this:
–When the renter of a storage unit falls behind in monthly payments, the facility's owner gets to sell the unit's contents.
–Delinquent renters are sent notices about the impending sale of their property, and the sale is advertised in a newspaper.
The whole process takes about two months.
–On auction day, would-be buyers show up with cash in hand, flashlights and extra padlocks. They're allowed only a brief glimpse of the contents – peering in with flashlights from the doorway – before the bidding starts.
An auctioneer is the master of ceremonies.
Forrest O'Brien, sporting a western straw hat and a cowboy mustache, led bidding at the Orangevale and Auburn sites last week.
In Orangevale, he walked dozens of bidders from unit to unit. One locker was filled with tumbled boxes. Another had a TV, old mattresses and a doll house.
"Ugly," O'Brien called the unit. Knowing bidders nodded their heads in agreement. It wasn't worth much.
Some units went for around $500, others for much less. But a few reached the thousand-dollar mark.
The locker that Karres and Williams won was stuffed with a variety of items, making it appear more valuable to those in the know.
"It had a potpourri," Karres said.
The price went up and up, as bidders gave the fast-talking O'Brien a nod, a hand signal or a shout. Karres and Williams bid $1,050. O'Brien asked for $1,100.
"Yes or no? Gotta go. Ten-fifty, sold!," he said.
Then Karres and Williams had a quick look inside the unit and slapped their own padlock on the door. They took several days to sort it out.
Bidding on the unknown is like gambling at a casino, Williams said.
"It's a risk, like going to Thunder Valley," she said.
Bidders ranged across experience levels.
Matt Zentner and James Olson stood in line to view the Orangevale units. Both were contractors who had watched the TV shows but never visited an auction.
"I just wanted to experience it firsthand," Zentner said.
Krajewski had been coming to the auctions for six or eight months, he said. He sells his finds at flea markets. Others favor Craigslist or eBay.
He said he looks for telltale signs such as neatly taped boxes with "fragile" written on the side.
Still hoping for a score, he'd found some jewelry and other odds and ends.
"Nothing real good yet," Krajewski said, "but I'm expecting to one of these days."