From the distant end of the strip-lit corridor, unit S002 looks identical to the hundreds of other storage rooms in Reading’s giant Safestore warehouse. A heavy metal door painted pastel blue, a padlock bought from the front office, a sticker advertising the benefits of introducing a friend to self-storage. A nearby poster explaining the “Rules for Safe Lifting 1992″, though illustrated with jolly cartoons, doesn’t much enliven the sterile surroundings.
Up close, however, unit S002 suggests signs of life. From behind its door thrums the sound of big-chord American rock music, and there is a definite tang of sweat in the air. Inside, beyond a trio of bell weights and a stack of lockers, a dozen gym-kitted people are arranged in pairs, punching and kicking each other to the instructional barks of a teacher. He is Philip Else, and this is his martial arts gym – 800 windowless square feet in the heart of a storage facility to which people come every day, from 7am to 7pm, to learn how to beat the tar out of each other.
“I’ve wanted to run my own gym since I was 12,” says Else, now 35 and a professional mixed martial arts trainer and fighter. It was an impossible ambition while he was working as a bouncer and a security guard, briefly as a shelf stacker and a nude model, trying to support a secondary career in the ring. But Else is among a growing number of people who saw glittering opportunity in the bare concrete and steel of a storage unit. Rent was cheaper than most business premises; lighting, security and insurance were covered, the terms and conditions flexible, generally decided on the whim of a site manager. Couldn’t a unit be used for more than just offloading bubble-wrapped lamps and surplus kitchen equipment?
Living space has shrunk, recession-struck businesses have downsized, but we are still incorrigible land grabbers at heart, comforted by the idea of a room of one’s own, and willing to pay for it. The self-storage industry has grown rich on the impulse, and, in America, where self-storage first emerged in the 1960s, the industry now out-earns the music business. In Britain, growth has been steady since an injection of investment from property moguls at the end of the last decade, and companies like Safestore, Access Self-Storage and Storage King pull in a combined £360m a year.
In the middle of a house move last year, Else and his wife, Cat, mentioned to the manager of their unit that, cleared of boxed possessions, it would make a decent martial-arts training gym. They were half-joking, but the manager thought it over and liked the idea, suggesting a more appropriate space and even offering to arrange a new lick of paint – moody grey, to better suit the fighting aesthetic. Their gym has been open since the summer.
Pride of place in the room goes to a 15ft-tall fighting cage that Else uses to train his students. It is “the only cage in Berkshire”, and the Elses are reaping the benefits. Despite limited showering facilities (“Wear deodorant!” instructs a sign), membership has tripled in two months. “We pay £600 a month rent. The cage pays for itself.”
Expansion in the future will be literally that: removing a wall at the end of the gym and pushing on into the next-door unit. Else foresees a day when there will be a boxing ring, too, and weight machines. “It’s not a proper gym; it’s not a David Lloyd – there aren’t people on treadmills with their headphones in. But it’s a hardworking gym, a fighting gym, and we like the spit-and-sawdust feel.”
Who’s a pretty boy?: Fred Wright (above) runs a bird-fancying business from his unit. Photograph: Suki Dhanda
Less spit, but lots of sawdust, in units 2400 and 2410 on the ground floor of Access Self-Storage in Croydon. These rooms are leased by Fred Wright, an early adopter who moved his home-run operation selling bird-fancying equipment into a self-storage unit in the mid-1990s. Thousands of entrepreneurs and small business owners have done the same since, and businesses now account for a third of the UK industry’s rented space.
“I’d outgrown the garage,” says Wright, 61, “and I didn’t want to be working from home all the time.” He moved his stock – cages, seed, mountains of sawdust – to a space in a former Timex watch factory in Surrey. Then, this year, he was offered the chance to be the first to move into a newly built facility in a retail park off the A23; the site manager, a pal, had the perfect allotment in mind – adjoining rooms in a prime locale beside the loading bay door. Wright was delighted. “Imagine this much seed in my garage!” he says, pointing at the plastic sacks that are stacked from floor to ceiling. There’s Buckton’s Budgie Tonic, Clark’s Squeamer Feed, and, passed over as if it were some little thing, Fred Wright’s Exotic Bird Mix, made to his own recipe. On the shelves are water feeders, food feeders, nest pans, nest felts and literature, too – a budgie handbook that Wright penned 20 years ago. Tucked underneath all this is a box of Union Jack car flags – “Totally unrelated”, says Wright. “I got stitched up at auction there. I just love to deal, buying something for 50p and selling it for 80p. My accountant always says to me: ‘I hope you’re enjoying this, because you aren’t earning enough to warrant the rent on the units.’ But I love it.”
A little creative blinkering when it comes to the cost of self-storage is not uncommon – the rolling rent to harbour, say, an unwanted sofa will quickly top out the expense of junking the sofa and buying anew. “The vast majority of people have a need for storage temporarily, at odd times in their life,” says Paul Glenister of the Self Storage Association UK (SSAUK), a group set up to protect the interests of this quickly fattening industry. “But, increasingly these days, we’re getting long-term, continuous users. We call them lifestyle customers.”
Wright’s unit in the Timex factory had been in continuous use for more than a decade. He was happy there, but the building had “looked a bit like a workhouse” and he suffered unruly neighbours – a limousine crew whose unit was filled entirely with magnums of champagne. The new facility is more spacious, the neighbouring rooms as yet empty, and he can let his business spill out into the corridor if needs be. Occasionally he brings customers here.
“I try to be open for visitors twice a week,” says Wright. “We’re a fragmented community, bird fanciers. I like people to know that if they can’t find something, they can always come to Fred.”
Unit 3602 is deep in the interior of Access Self-Storage in north London, well away from the noise of the industrial shredder that whirrs constantly in the forecourt. Aideen Donoghue needs to concentrate, having splayed herself on a portable ballet barre in a shape that should not be possible. Legs at right angles, body doubled, arms extended behind her back – “I shouldn’t really do this,” says the 23-year-old dancer from County Tyrone, “it’s not an official stretch.” But she suffers from scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, a condition that doesn’t mesh particularly well with six hours of dancing every day. She has to do a lot of stretching.
When she first moved to London, it raised a difficulty: in an overcrowded city, living in an overcrowded flat, where to stretch? She found the answer in a quiet 12×12 opposite King’s Cross station, and has come here to limber up for more than a year. “I didn’t think I was going to stay; it was a quick-fix solution. But it’s so much cheaper than anywhere else – £150 a month, and to have the same space in a studio would be £30 an hour.”
As well as stretching, she comes here to plot steps for dance classes she teaches at a local college, and to practise routines for occasional jobs in musicals. It is handy training, getting used to performing pliés and frappés and jazzy pick-up steps in a confined space. West End chorus girls are no less forgiving than metal walls should you tumble into them.
The location of 3602 on the outer rim of the building means Donoghue gets the use of a knee-high ledge along one wall, and in the spartan world of storage units, a small ledge earns the status of high luxury. She cherishes it. “I don’t get a lot of privacy; my life is centred around students or castings and auditions. The only time I get by myself to collect my thoughts is in my unit. I come here to sit on my little ledge and read my book, or phone my family back home. It’s like a mini-flat for me. I might bring a bed in here, get an hour’s sleep.”
The bed bit cannot be mentioned within earshot of anybody in charge, as sleeping in storage units is strictly forbidden. “We call them hotels for your stuff,” says SSAUK’s Glenister, “but not for you.” Still, the industry has its horror stories. In January 2002, Wanda Hudson of Mobile, Alabama was let out of her storage unit suffering from advanced starvation after two months stuck inside. She had survived on tinned vegetables and boxes of juice after an employee had mistakenly padlocked her in; lawyers acting for the storage warehouse, which eventually paid Hudson $100,000 in damages, suggested she had been sleeping in the unit at the time.
It is a problem that has troubled the storage industry – that by providing people a private space, they can get up to things that really need to remain private. The list of crimes committed or concealed behind storage shutters must make surrounding police forces itch to conduct pot-luck raids. The murdered bodies of secretary Kathryn Chappell and teacher Jane Longhurst were both found in storage, Chappell in Manchester in 1993 and Longhurst in Brighton in 2003. A record cocaine seizure was made from a Buckinghamshire lock-up in 2004. A year earlier, 600kg of ammonium nitrate fertiliser was found in a makeshift bomb factory at an Access Self-Storage warehouse in Hanwell, west London; seven men with links to al-Qaeda were convicted following a police operation that involved replacing the warehouse receptionist with an undercover agent.
The receptionist at Access Self-Storage in King’s Cross admits to being less clued up than that (“I’ve worked here for three years, and last week I found a new area I’d never even seen before”), but a neighbouring shop owner remembers talk of an IRA bomb plot foiled on this site by police. Donoghue is untroubled by the thought. Several hours in a locked box every week teaches more localised thinking: one of her students has an impending tap-dancing exam, there have been struggles with a complex step, and Donoghue is considering bringing her into unit 3602 for extra rehearsals.
Out of the shadows: (from left) David Viner, guitarist with heavy metal group Seven, and bandmates Thomas Makryniotis (singer), Andy Felton (drums) and Laurence Armitage (guitar). Photograph: Suki Dhanda
Unit FE07, on the upper deck of a Storage King in Reading, accommodates rehearsals of a noisier nature. “We were desperate for a place to practise,” shrugs David Viner, a guitarist with heavy metal group Seven, formed last year from the scraps of various dissolved bands in the Kent area. “The idea came to me and the guys when we were travelling back from an Iron Maiden gig in London. We kept passing storage places in the coach. More and more and more.” (Storage warehouses, as anyone will have noticed if they’ve looked out of the window during train journeys or motorway drives, are everywhere. There are currently 750 in the UK, enough for every citizen to have just under half a square foot to themselves if they wanted.)
Viner, 21, and his bandmates – guitarist Laurence Armitage, singer Thomas Makryniotis and drummer Andy Felton – moved in last March. They have had a troubled time since: their bassist was forced to quit in September because of a tricky undergraduate timetable, and they can’t agree on what to call their newest song, “an instrumental about ninjas”. But the storage unit has been a constant. They come here several times a week from Gillingham and Rochester and Rainham, travelling past similar warehouses en route but putting in the extra miles because this one is accessible 24 hours a day. Often they practise past midnight; once, they kept going all through the night, breaking out for breakfast from a nearby Tesco.
The acoustics they find excellent – “A happy accident”, says Felton, but something musicians have noted before. In 2006, an up-and-coming rock band called Mohair recorded one of their singles in a south London Safestore; the song didn’t chart, and the band never quite up-and-came, but critics noted a pleasantly “squally” tone.
Storage units have littered popular culture, exciting novelists as diverse as Alan Bennett (his 1998 novella The Clothes They Stood Up In hinged on a storage mix-up) and Thomas Harris, whose Hannibal Lecter self-stored a severed head; a 2004 episode of forensics show CSI centred on gender-reassignment surgery performed in one of these anonymous units. Popular culture, likewise, has littered storage units – 32 previously undiscovered Jackson Pollocks, for instance, were found in a Long Island depository in 2005, and a set of previously unseen Stanley Kubrick photographs in Ohio the following year.
Hoping to unearth a cultural gem of their own, Seven take up their positions to try out some new material, cramming in at strategic angles to allow room for assorted microphones, amplifiers and an eight-cymbal drum kit. Carefully placed electric fans going at full bore and wax plugs in (“You only get your ears once”), the band performs at the closed units across the corridor. The hope, of course, is that the impassive metal doors of FE16 and FE17 will soon be replaced by an audience. “We’re happy here until then,” says Armitage.
Wheels of steel: (from left) Dallas Shepperd, Steve Boulain, Sue Bishop, Ian Norman, Steve House and MD Kim Wade of wheelchair restoration group Re-Quip, in their lock-up in Southampton. Photograph: Suki Dhanda
Unit 1501, Storage King, Southampton. Removed from a row of wheelchairs in disrepair – some with broken frames, others rusty and peeling, one wheel-less – sits a freshly restored model, the morning’s work of Steve House, Ian Norman and Kim Wade. They are all disabled volunteers at a wheelchair restoration group called Re-Quip that has been operating out of a storage unit for the past three months.
The project wouldn’t have been possible anywhere else, explains a liaison from Southampton council, Dallas Shepperd. “It was the best option for rent, better than anything the council could offer.” A year here will cost Re-Quip about £4,000; the site manager threw in one month’s rent for a quid to support the project. “It’s easy to forget that people with disabilities might have once had trades, jobs – and those skills don’t go away,” says House, who used to run an electrical repairs shop. Norman, a former docker and truck driver, agrees: “You’ve got to adapt to what you can do.” There’s a constant stream of well-meant ribbing among the team members. “Steve can’t use his right arm, Ian can’t use his left, so I’ve got one complete man at my disposal,” says Wade. “Crucially,” says Shepperd, “everybody can pull a pint.”
The jocular crew is also quick with gags to downplay the meagre surroundings. Like others who spend their nine-to-fives in a storage unit, the industrial comfortlessness has to be surmounted by imagination and a dose of good cheer. In Re-Quip’s unit there is a portable kettle, giant quantities of tea, a Homer Simpson clock. It is amazing what a little brio does for a stark steel box. Like the Elses’s gym and Donoghue’s dance studio, spaces that ought to be bleak become legitimately appealing with the installation of an idea and a few adornments: crash mats and a fighting cage, a ballet barre and a ledge.
Let battle commence: software engineer James Osborn, aka Sultan Vin E’Gar, a merchant prince in the Lorien Trust’s role play universe. Photograph: Suki Dhanda
Businesses are run out of storage units, entrepreneurs and artists see 20 square yards of concrete floor and feel the tug of inspiration, and just about any use of a shuttered cell one can think of – bar importing duvet and pyjamas and moving in outright – will be considered by the barons of this canny industry. But James Osborn, a 26-year-old computer engineer from Nottingham, uses self-storage for what it was at root intended. It is his outlet for over-accumulation, a home for stuff.
He unbolts unit 3416 of Nottingham’s Storage King to reveal a wall of clutter, rising to neck height. A large canvas tent has to be unspooled before he shows off a box of wooden vases. A home-made staff with a clawed foot is wedged tight behind a lamination machine for making labels. The scarlet-flecked hand of a toy skeleton wiggles eerily in a far corner; Osborn, unstacking plastic tubs containing colourful scarves, is many piles of junk away from being able to reach it.
He is a Dungeons & Dragons man, an avid dresser-upper and a prominent member of the Lorien Trust, which organises “live-action role play” events for fantasy fans. Osborn, in the Lorien Trust’s fictional world, plays a merchant prince, an elaborately outfitted dignitary called Sultan Vin E’Gar. The comedy name has become more of a problem as he’s risen through the ranks of the game, but it is too late to change now. “We have character progression,” he says. “A lot of my progression is locked in here.”
He has more than five years’ worth of role-play detritus. “We used those squares of furniture foam as pieces of volcanic rock. That tablet was supposed to represent the temple of a sun god. Those were Egyptian skulls…” And the bongo drums? “They were just bongo drums.”
The tent had to be put back into storage while still wet after a rainy event in a field in Derbyshire, and Osborn has been coming here every other day to shake it dry. There are still a few weeks until the next gathering, and until then he will go back to a life without weapons as a software engineer. As with Fred Wright and Seven and the fighting Elses, Osborn can shutter and padlock this aspect of his life as necessary, revisiting, like Aideen Donoghue, when that aspect needs stretching room.
A report by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment released in August this year warned that new-build British houses often don’t have enough space for storage, to entertain friends or for children to play. An alarming 47% of those surveyed said their homes couldn’t house all their furniture, and 35% said their kitchens couldn’t even accommodate appliances such as toasters. If home is no longer a castle, then at least a storage unit allows some room for manoeuvre outside the ramparts. They realise a self through storage, these renters – as ballerina, budgie rearer and repairman, martial artist, musician and merchant prince – and a few hundred a month seems no great cost.
Osborn packs his collection away. “This mask used to be worn by a monster character,” he says, fondly handling a cycling helmet that has been modified with colourful material. “The character died, unfortunately. A sad day.” He places the helmet atop a box of Egyptian skulls, tucks in the corners of his drying tent and closes the door. He fastens a padlock.
• This article was amended on Monday 30 November 2009. We incorrectly described Access Self-Storage as Access Storage Solutions. This has been corrected.