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Business/Economy

Storage auctions are on the rise in Alaska, auctioneers say. In come the fortune hunters.

On a recent Saturday, Jami Norman scored big at her first storage auction, winning a widescreen TV, high-end power tools and truckloads of other items for $500.

"It was an awesome day," said Norman, who beat experienced bidders to win the contents of two units at Dimond Mini Storage in Anchorage.

She's hoping to sell it all for $2,000 online — quadrupling her investment — at the growing secondhand showroom she operates from her home in Mountain View.

Welcome to Alaska's real-life version of the popular "Storage Wars" TV show, in which bidders snatch up locker units that went into default when renters stopped making payments. The auctions appear to be on the rise in Alaska, where the 2014 oil price crash led to thousands of layoffs, tipping the state into recession, say the people who run auctions.

"More people can't afford to pay their storage bill," said Charles Brobst, owner of North Pacific Auctioneers.

The company auctioned off more than 700 storage units in 2017, up 40 percent from the year before, he said.

"If things continue the way they are, I'm expecting probably more defaulted storage units this year," he said last week.

The bidders are speculators. They hope for a lucky pick but have no idea what they'll find inside.

"You might find firearms, you might find dirty underwear," said Dave Lofland, a self-described treasure hunter who showed up at the auction.

On that Saturday, multiple storage auctions were held in Anchorage, including the one at Dimond Mini Storage run by Grubstake Auction. The company pitched 13 units to Norman, Lofland and a dozen other bidders.

Jami Norman, right, makes the winning bid on a storage unit at Dimond Mini Storage in South Anchorage on Saturday, March 24, 2018. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

Jacques Alleva, vice president at Grubstake, said the company is holding more auctions as the economy has worsened, about once every three months instead of every four. There are more defaulted units at each sale too, about 15 instead of 10. Auctioneer Jesse Alleva, with Grubstake, laid out the rules, including minimum bids for $25.

Winning bidders should turn items that seem personal, like photos, into the front desk so owners could find them.

"And if you find any cash, make sure you split it with me," he said.

"Yeah, right," someone shouted before the group tramped across the snow to the lockers.

It was like the TV show, with bidders getting their first look at the merchandise when the locker doors rolled open.

"Stand back," shouted Jerry Henry, general manager at Dimond, as he slid open a bay door on a big unit 10 feet deep. "This one's full."

The locker was stuffed to the ceiling with every household item imaginable: a stool, sofa, lamps, mattresses, tools, books, bins with toys. What looked like a plastic tabletop dropped onto the snow.

Nick Bigwood, a regular bidder at the auctions and owner of the Bargain Hunters shop in South Anchorage, peered in with a flashlight — bidders can't walk into the lockers, in part for their own safety.

He's found human ashes, scrambling shrews, and so many medical needles he's careful when sifting through his purchases.

He once found a gun tied to a murder. Anchorage police seized everything for evidence.

"I had to give that whole unit back," he said.

On Saturday, he won the packed unit for $175, but halfheartedly. Clearing out everything would be a ton of work.

"Free furniture!" he shouted as the group moved on.

Jami Norman loads a flat-screen TV into her car at Dimond Mini Storage. Norman bought the contents of a storage locker during an auction. (Alex DeMarban / ADN)

Lofland said he'd come in pursuit of items he could use or maybe sell. It's a favorite way to burn a Saturday when he can't be on his boat.

"If my wife calls, tell her I'm at the Bush Company," he said of Alaska's famed strip club. "I'll get in less trouble."

Once in a while he lands a "giant score," like printing presses he once bought for $250 and later sold for several times that amount.

Saturday was a win, he said, filling the back of his truck with boxes he'd picked up after bidding $50 for a closet-sized locker. One contained heavy-duty power tools.

"This just happens to be stuff I can use at home," he said.

Valerie Demientieff won a unit for $125. Her stash included bandoliers of shotgun shells, bullets in clips, a portable air conditioner, a golf bag of clubs, and a bike she plans to sell on Facebook Marketplace for $40.

"We're definitely going to make our money back," she said.

It was her first locker auction but won't be her last.

"I love it," she said. "I think I'm going to get addicted."

Jami Norman’s living room is packed with the contents of storage lockers she’s won at auction. Included in her finds from the lockers are two New York Times newspapers reporting on the assassination of President Kennedy and a Life Magazine issue on the 1964 Alaska earthquake. Norman sells the items she has bought at the sales. (Bob Hallinen / ADN)

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