A prospective bidder inspects the contents of Tom Steffensen's garage a few minutes before Thursday's Storage Wars auction. Photo by Charis Prunty/Register
• Owner elects to skip the garage sale, sell the whole lot at once
BROOKINGS "When storage units are abandoned, the treasures within are put up for auction."
So says Thom Beers, narrator and executive producer of the hit reality TV show "Storage Wars," at the outset of every episode.
At auction Thursday night in Brookings was not the contents of a storage unit, but of a garage measuring 14-feet by 22-feet . Owner Tom Steffensen bought the garage and accompanying house at 1711 Olwien St., Brookings, in order to flip it. He gutted the house, tearing out carpet and refinishing the hardwood floors beneath, re-plumbing (Steffensen owns Complete Plumbing in Brookings), re-painting , re-doing the kitchen, bathrooms and bedrooms , hanging new doors and generally redoing the house. The house has already been rented, but it's also for sale by owner, Steffensen said.
Meanwhile, when the former owner moved into assisted living, he left things behind in the house and garage. Steffensen and his family got rid of some of it and hauled the rest out to the garage. Deciding a garage sale wasn't worth the time and effort, Steffensen asked friend and auctioneer Jim Peterson if an auction was a good idea. It was Peterson who suggested playing off the Storage Wars concept.
"So, I don't really care what I get for it, I just want to get rid of it," he said. "I don't really even know what's in there because I didn't box all the stuff up. It's just a lot of boxes of household stuff. There's antiques; I know there's an 1890 pump organ in there with the chairs.
"If I just go through a few items, there's $1,000 worth of stuff pretty quick, just in some of the big items and that's not even looking in the boxes."
Steffensen said this isn't the first time the Storage Wars concept has been used in Brookings: His friend Steve Hogie, who owns some local storage units, did the same thing last fall to empty unpaid units.
Storage Wars, seen on the A&E Network, is a reality TV show featuring auctioneers and professional buyers. In each episode, the contents of storage lockers whose rent has not been paid in at least three months is being auctioned. Buyers have five minutes to inspect what they can see from the door of the locker, then bid on the whole lot with the hope of finding hidden treasure inside. The show premiered in 2010 and opened its third season this June 5. It has been so popular that a spin-off , Storage Wars: Texas, debuted in December 2011, and a second spin-off is in process, to be based in New York. You can also watch the show in Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland and Norway. Its season two premiere last July drew 5.1 million viewers and was the highest rated episode of a series in A&E history.
"I watch the show and I enjoy it it's kind of comical and entertaining and I just thought it might be a fun way to get rid of the stuff without me having to spread it out over the driveway," Steffensen said.
A half hour before Thursday's auction, Steffensen said a successful auction would come down to who showed up. He'd paid very little to put a line ad in the Register and Town & Country Shopper and on Craigslist. He could make hundreds of dollars on it, but he'd be happy with $50 and an empty garage, he said.
"If nobody shows up, I'm out $20 and we'll get rid of it another way. So, it was a minimal investment for me to try to get rid of it this way, too," he said. Here's how it went
The auction went something like this: A few minutes before 7 p.m., several cars pulled up and neighbors walked over until about 15 people were standing around. When someone asked whether they'd be allowed to look through the items for sale, Steffensen said he'd handle it like the show. At 7 p.m. he'd open the garage door, let everyone look but not touch or go inside, and at 7:05 he'd begin the auction.
When the door opened, what everyone saw first was that ornate antique pump organ, made of cherry-colored wood, sitting just inside. Also crammed into the space were plenty of cardboard boxes, a fabric covered couch, wooden dining room chairs and a small rocking chair, two upright vacuums, a lawn mower, several American flags, a metal plant stand, a long green garden hose and a whole lot more, much of it obscured from view. Steffensen tentatively started the bidding at $50. He got it, and continued by increments of $50 until he reached $450. Someone offered $475, and then the crowd took a break to peer into the garage for another minute before someone else offered $485, then $495.
About this time, a truck and big black trailer the type used to haul racecars pulled up and hurriedly parked across the street. Out jumped Craig Deustch, who later said he is from Wilmont, Minn., and owns a pawn shop/antiques/thrift store.
Deustch ran right up to the garage and immediately offered a bid. Brookings resident Lynne Wellberg, who was there with her husband, Brian Wellberg, and friend Linda Munich, was the only one still in the hunt. The price went up to $505, $515, $525 and $530 before finally settling on Deustch's bid of $540. Empty within the hour
Everyone dispersed and, as he took care of the payment, Deustch told Steffensen something he was glad to hear: The garage would be empty within the hour. Deustch said he's been to a similar auction in Watertown before, and heard about this one from an employee who lives in Brookings. And he never goes anywhere without his trailer.
"The organ's where all the money is that's probably worth, I'd say, $1,000," Deustch said. "The rest of it should be all just fun to get rid of. A lot of it will go in the dumpster. Well, who knows, I guess. Usually people leave stuff behind because it isn't too valuable. That's why I was surprised to see that organ."
Wellberg said that is what caught her fancy as well, and kept her bidding for a while.
"I wanted to come just to see what would happen ; I really didn't think I was going to bid until I saw the organ," Lynne said. "That was what was saying 'Bid on me! Bid on me!' I saw one (organ) in one of the shops downtown it's very similar; it's not the same color wood but it's about the same size and they want $1,600 for it. But I just couldn't bring myself to bid one more time. Because my sister's coming to visit from Tennessee in a couple of weeks and I think about all the stuff I've got to get done before she comes."
Had she won, Wellberg said, she would have donated a lot to Goodwill and sold the organ and any other antiques at the booth she keeps at one of the antique shops in town.
This was the second auction she's been to here in Brookings, Wellberg said. The last was one of Hogie's storage units, and it went for $1185, Brian said.
"And, I don't think there was as much in there as this one has in it," Lynne said.
When it was all done, Steffensen again said his profit came down to who showed up: Had there been two store owners like Deustch, he could have made more than $1,000 pretty quickly. But, overall he was happy with the result.
"It went great; I'm tickled," Steffensen said. "Some people showed up and bid." Contact Charis Prunty at email@example.com.