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Ever wonder what's in a Cape Breton storage unit?

Jim Whalen of Mira stands outside his business East Coast Storage and Movers on Sydney Road in Reserve Mines. Whalen said people rent units for all different reasons including one person for a box of encyclopedias.
Jim Whalen of Mira stands outside his business East Coast Storage and Movers on Sydney Road in Reserve Mines. Whalen said people rent units for all different reasons including one person for a box of encyclopedias. - Sharon Montgomery-Dupe
SYDNEY, N.S. — Storage unit lots might be the loneliest business properties in Cape Breton.
"It's funny as people drive by storage units wondering if anyone uses them as they never see anyone around," said Jim Whalen of Mira, owner of East Coast Storage in Reserve Mines.
"These businesses are very busy but people don't visit their storage. I'm like the Maytag repair man: nobody comes to visit."
Although a lack of visitors, there certainly isn't a lack of tales.
Whalen said people rent units for various reasons including one person who rented a 10-by-20-foot space -a very big unit - for one box of old encyclopedias.
"They had the unit about three months for that one box and still to this day I don't know why."
The longest he rented a unit for was eight and a half years and included nice antique furniture belonging to a family's loved one that passed away.
"They moved to Ontario and one day called and moved the furniture up."
Jim Whalen of Mira, left, owner of East Coast Storage and Movers on Sydney Road in Reserve Mines, and his son Hughie, help take furniture out of a storage unit for a customer who was in the process of moving. Whalen, who built his company from scratch 12 years ago, said there are all kinds of reasons people rent storage units, a lot of times it's connected to marriage breakups.
Jim Whalen of Mira, left, owner of East Coast Storage and Movers on Sydney Road in Reserve Mines, and his son Hughie, help take furniture out of a storage unit for a customer who was in the process of moving. Whalen, who built his company from scratch 12 years ago, said there are all kinds of reasons people rent storage units, a lot of times it's connected to marriage breakups.
Whalen has owned East Coast Storage for 12 years. He built the business from scratch beginning with one building and 44 units, increasing over the years to three buildings and 120 units.
His first rental was from someone preparing to put their house up for sale.
"What they do is take stuff out of their home - the clutter - so they can make it look really nice," he said.
"A lot of real estate agents recommend it."
People rent units to store vehicles, during a move and even businesses for storage.
One man was moving and rented two huge units - one for his furniture and the other for his passion.
"One unit was full of boxes of model cars - the collectible items - and the unit was full," he said.
"There were thousands and thousands of these boxes stacked almost to the top of the unit. It must have taken him 40 years or more to collect all that."
The man was worried about his cars but Whalen assured him his possessions were safe.
"These are dry metal buildings with airflow running through them."
Many unit rentals are a result of marriage breakups.
"There are always many divorcees. I could start a singles club and start introducing people to one another."
All information on storage unit rentals is confidential.
"I always have to get ID as you never know if the husband is trying to come after the wife's stuff or if the wife is coming after the husband's stuff."
Then there are the odd units where someone stops paying and disappears.
"Every business has that problem and sometimes we have no choice but have to sell them off."
Whalen said anyone wanting to see what's available in storage units in Cape Breton - or across Canada - can go on the https://bid13.com/auctions website. Clicking on the unit, pictures reveals a peek inside, similar to the popular television show "Storage Wars."
"We might not even see what's in the unit unless we move them in or out as we are a moving company too."
Marvin MacLean has owned Richmond Country Self Storage in St. Peter's for 10 years now and has 24 units.
However, because a unit is rented doesn't mean it's full inside.
"One guy rented one, he put a lock on it and paid for it for the year but never had anything in it. He said, 'I wanted it but never ended up using it.'"
Then there is the odd person with a full unit who doesn't pay. 
A full storage unit at East Coast Storage and Movers on Sydney Road in Reserve Mines.
A full storage unit at East Coast Storage and Movers on Sydney Road in Reserve Mines.
"I have a guy who has been delinquent for over a year so I changed the locks on it. It's full of pretty good stuff.
MacLean said the unit will be sold.
"I've had some who move away and call saying, 'I don't want the unit anymore and I don't care what you do with the stuff.'"
One well-known organization has a unit rented with MacLean but only has a bandsaw in it.
"They've had it rented for six years now with only the saw in it, which has never been used."
MacLean said after someone moves out of a unit, the space is cleaned and then rented again. However, one guy moved out and before he got a new lock on it, found it had been in use again.
"We found someone was staying in it, there was a sleeping bag in it."
Stephen Read, owner of Read Enterprises Ltd. in Sydney River, has storage units in the form of huge warehouses that each fit 30-40 vehicles.
"Most of the time it's cars, antique cars, motorcycles, boats and RVS," he said.
Read said they only wanted vehicle storage so they have one rule: "Anything on wheels." One day a man held him to that.
"He came in with a popcorn cart. He sold popcorn and hotdogs, like the carts you see on the corner of the street. It was on wheels."
Although the company doesn't accept furniture or household items, some customers get around it.
"Some will bring their car in and it's full of personal possessions," he said.
"Whatever they can get in it, it doesn't matter to us as long as it's all in their car."
The storage often has motorhomes, particularly people travelling to Newfoundland towing a car who don't want to take the motorhome on the ferry.
A customer has had storage for upwards of eight years in the past.
"That generally is a family heirloom, or someone passed away and they don't want to part with the car and haven't decided what they are going to do with it yet."
In the fall after the warehouses are filled the doors are closed and don't open again until May.
Peter Hammond, manager of Downtown Storage in Sydney, said they have 28 units inside and eight outside. People rent their units for many reasons but many are through restoration companies securing possessions for insurance claims.
However, they've also had units rented for unique items including a chandelier worth upwards of $30,000.
"A lot of it is with people moving or downsizing," he said.
"It's an interesting business which gives you an insight into people's lives, of what people do collect and hold on to."
One recent unit was filled with Halloween decorations.
"It was a business and the decorations have nothing to do with the business, they are just enthusiastic about Halloween and they happen to go all out," he said.
"It's everything you wish you had at Halloween when you were a kid."
sharon.montgomery@cbpost.com

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