I like stuff as much as the next guy. Stuff clutters my work area at the office and my entire century-old home in the country. It is exceedingly difficult to discard even the most insignificant stuff. You never know what will come in handy, or when. Just as soon as you pitch the stuff, you'll need it and kick yourself for acting so impulsively. Anyway, that's the philosophy of packrats. Those sentimentally challenged wimps simply can't let go of anything from moldy high school letter jackets to funky ashtrays that bring back college memories.
While I don't consider myself an insufferable hoarder, I will confess to being a piler of stuff. To the untrained eye my piles of stuff represent a disorganized mess. To me they represent security. I always know my stuff is somewhere in some pile. Stuff I can't tackle immediately is neatly set aside in a pile to be addressed at some later date, hopefully in the current calendar year. Those piles might include photographs still stuffed in store envelopes that will be sorted and placed in photo albums some day. Yeah, right. There are piles of newspaper and magazine clippings that could be needed as reference material or that contain material to be read pending free time. Of course, other piles include bills, correspondences, and must-see catalogs.
But unlike many hopeless hoarders, I do have my limits when the piles of stuff reach the point of no point. When things get so out of hand that I can't find anything because everything is lying around the house or office, I fly into a frenetic everything-but-the-essentials-has-to-go purge. My binging and purging of stuff is admittedly not the healthiest alternative to leading an organized, clutter-free life, but it works for me. And I'm one of the lucky ones.
It's an addiction, really. People become so hooked on stuff, they can't stop accumulating it. Pretty soon, they have absolutely no place to put all their stuff and, instead of cutting back or getting rid of it, they look for other places to keep it. To accommodate those with too much stuff, a whole industry has sprung up to store excess furniture, photo albums, bikes, or whatever consumers hoard, in what look like single-story colonies of small, attached garages. Instead of choosing the cost-free options of buying fewer things or throwing out unneeded stuff, people would rather pay to put it in self-storage facilities, which have grown at a remarkable rate the last few years.
The self-storage business is now a $10-billion-a-year industry. Between 1998 and 1999, the number of self-storage facilities in the United States jumped 9 per cent, from 27,535 to 29,955, according to industry data. In 1982, to illustrate how far the industry has come, there were just 10,000 self-storage businesses in the country. In less than a decade, it doubled to 20,000. In the early days you'd pay your rent, back your stuff up to a storage unit, shove it into the space allotted, and lock the padlocked door until the next visit.
Today, some self-storage facilities boast not merely a hole in the wall to hold everything from golf clubs to the kitchen sink, but a comfy, multistory home away from home for all the stuff that's fit to store. Your stuff can stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer thanks to the luxury of computerized climate control. It will also be safe and sound with state-of-the-art security systems. The stuff-friendly suites are the ultimate answer to a hoarder's dream.
And there are a lot of hoarders out there. Combined, self-storage facilities in the country offer an estimated 8 million individual storage units. In June, 1999, the average occupancy rate at these facilities was 86.9 per cent, up from the 85.1 per cent the previous year. Granted, people enduring major upheavals like divorce, death, or job change often require a place to park their stuff until life becomes more stable. But I'd bet most of the stuff stacked in these sprawling self-storage facilities is the result of unrestrained materialism.
It's a vicious cycle. Storage facilities enable the collectors of stuff to hoard without guilt and the more they do the higher the demand for space to store their indulgences. I like stuff as much as the next guy, but not when it gets too big to manage without hauling it from Point A to Point B. Most Americans could probably give away half of their stuff and still live perfectly comfortable lives.
It's not the stuff of greatness to amass such huge quantities as to require 8 million and counting individual storage units when so much of the rest of the world goes begging for even the minimum in material wealth.
Marilou Johanek is a Blade editorial writer.