Your storage unit or mine?

Elizabeth Day’s article

Every Thursday evening at around six o’clock, Terence goes to visit his mother in north London. « It’s nice to get away from everything, sit down and have a good old chat with her, » he says, blinking nervously through his bifocals. « Not a lot of people know I come here. It’s something I like to keep to myself. »

Terence, 56, potters off down a long brightly-lit corridor, takes a key out of his pocket and opens a locked door to his left. Beyond is a room, 250 foot square, containing a battered old armchair and an urn containing his mother’s ashes.

He will spend the next couple of hours cocooned in this temperature-regulated box to which nobody else in the world has access. There are no mobile telephones, no colleagues asking awkward questions and no sound other than the shuffle of footsteps or gentle piped music. This, for Terence, is the beauty of the self-storage unit.

He is not alone in discovering the benefits of a steel-bound room of one’s own. Since the first self-storage company opened in Britain 12 years ago, business has boomed. The number of warehouses has increased tenfold, from around 30 a decade ago to more than 300 today.

As property prices rise and housing space gets smaller, more and more people in Britain are renting self-storage units to act as their spare room. It is cheap, too: a 75 sq ft unit rents from around £70 a month. Across the pond where the idea originated, there are more than 40,000 self-storage depots and the industry is worth more than the entire American music business.

Paul Glenister, 41, who set up Easystore, the first self-storage unit in Britain, says: »It’s not an exaggeration to say that the entire industry grows 30 or 40 per cent each year. But it’s not just the figures that make it a great job. You see all forms of human life coming through your doors.

People tend to need storage at dramatic points in their lives, so we get customers going through bad times: divorces or downsizing because they’ve lost their job; and those going through good times: having a baby and needing extra space. »

And, of course, self-storage also attracts its fair share of people going through just plain weird times. At Easystore in Tonbridge, Kent, the units have housed anything from a collection of designer dog jackets to glass-fibre dinosaurs, taxidermist models, diesel trains and a personal collection of 500 shoes.

Warehouse managers have spotted desperate couples using storage units to conduct illicit affairs. The London Ambulance service hires a 2,000 sq ft area in Bow for medical equipment and a premiership football team is said to house its gym in one.

Then there’s the solicitor at King’s Cross who rents his self-storage unit to practise the flute in his lunch hour and the man in east London, who tried to set up an art gallery in his (he wasn’t allowed to).

There’s the man who has soundproofed the walls of his unit to use it as a recording studio and the errant husband in Wells, Somerset, who keeps a vast collection of pornographic magazines in his. Another male customer, unbeknown to his wife, keeps an extensive wine cellar so that he can enjoy a leisurely afternoon’s drinking.

« It’s not just the men, » Mr Glenister says. « You’d be surprised how many wives use units to store, shall we say, racy shopping that they want to hide from their spouses. »

With such a cornucopia of human experience to contend with, the efficacy of a self-storage warehouse relies on the preternatural alertness of the staff.

By Elizabeth Day