Although they don’t wear eye patches or scowl, the “storage pirates” of Hudson County are certainly characters in their own right, and are part of an emerging internet TV program shot in Jersey City, Union City, and Newark.
They come from every walk of life. Some have been involved with storage unit sales for decades and some others only for a year or two.
“But it’s like getting high without drugs,” Steven “The Gambler” Monetti who is a participant on the show said.
They are part of a new reality show called “Storage Pirates of New Jersey.” The program is the brain child of Alan Mruvka, former chief executive officer for E Entertainment, and promises to bring reality back to reality TV.
A co-owner of Storage Blue facilities in Jersey City, Union City, and elsewhere in the region for more than 15 years, Mruvka recently become sole owner of four facilities in Hudson County.
“I served as CEO for E Entertainment for 12 years,” he said.
He grew up in Englewood, studied to be an architect, got into real estate, then media, then storage. He said TV as it once was is a dying business, and that the future is internet-based programming.
“Once people get used to sitting down to watch programs on the internet the way they do TV, network and cable TV will vanish,” he said. “Networks won’t be able to tell you what to watch and when to watch it.”
He said the change started when people began to record programs. With new internet-based programming, the landscape changes, and he hopes to be part of that change.
He said he thought about recording the first sale because he saw the drama in it.
“Viewers like treasure hunts,” he said. “This is largely about treasure.”
So he started recording episodes on a YouTube channel. Some are short segments, but they make up a regular cast.
Starting with the first four Storage Blue facilities, the program may expand to others later.
Program came out of necessity
When Mruvka took over the facilities in Jersey City and Union City, a number of storage units were behind on rent. Some renters hadn’t paid fees for up to a year. Under state law, the storage facility has the legal right to sell off the contents if fees haven’t been paid for 45 days. This is generally done by auction.
For Mruvka, the sale was a new experience. And once he saw the event unfold, he decided it might have the makings of a new reality show, something like “Storage Wars,” but with a bit more reality. He said he saw something authentic and wanted to capture it.
Mruvka approached Monetti and asked him if he wanted to take part in a reality TV show.
“Viewers like treasure hunts. This is largely about treasure.” – Alan Mruvka
Mruvka asked Monetti to find a suitable group of trustworthy storage people to help populate the show. The collection of characters came from every corner of Hudson County as well as from elsewhere in the state. Each of the characters on the show has a particular moniker.
Monetti is known as “The Gambler” because he takes a lot of chances on what he bids on.
“Bidding on a storage unit is always a gamble,” he said. “You can make a lot of money or lose your shirt.’
Monetti got into the business when he had failed to pay the storage fees on his own unit, and someone else purchased it with all of his professional gear. While he managed to purchase his gear back, he soon got a taste for the game, and became a regular, traveling from storage sale to storage sale.
Brian J. Warner works in the funeral home business by day. A newcomer to the business of bidding on storage units (he’s only been doing it for a year and a half), he earned his moniker “The Digger” not for his daytime job, but for his bidding habits.
James “Woody the Repo Man” Wood makes a living as a photographer in fire investigations. A resident of Bergen County, he heads from sale to sale, and was once part of one of the network storage programs he said he hated because it was phony.
“They shot the show in Haledon, and said it was New York,” he said. “They also shot it after the sale and then changed which person made the purchase. Our show is real. What you see really happened.”
“This is also high quality, recorded by Alan’s people,” Wood said.
Israel A Rodriguez, from Union City, is called “The Cuban.” His friends also call him Izzy.
Deric J. Miller is “the Scrapper,” is accompanied on his exploits by Cynthia Neuschafer, called “The Scapper’s Better Half,” because she is very savvy in the business.
About making money
In these bidding wars, the storage owner opens the door to the unit, and people offer bids based on what they see. No one can touch anything.
“It’s a gamble that there might be something of value inside,” said Monetti, a one-time professional clown turned storage pirate, who hopes to get back into show biz.
“It is also about knowing what to look for, and getting educated about what might turn a profit when others bidding do not know,” Rodriguez said.
Several of these pirates said they learned a lot from “The Antique Road Show” about how to recognize something of value.
Rodriquez said he learns from each experience, doing research on items.
An auction could include as many as 50 storage units. The next one for later this month at the Baldwin Avenue facility will put up 37 units.
Each person has his or her own story about strange stuff they found when they bought a unit.
Rodriquez found a whole room from a taxidermist full of stuffed animals.
Monetti made news headlines once when he found the remains of 32 bodies in a Harlem storage unit.
“I thought I was buying a unit that had jewels,” he said. “Two of the bodies were eventually turned over for proper burial.”
Miller said everybody is different in what they think of as strange. He said he once paid $25 for a unit that contained a lot of gold and silver, along with National Football League jerseys.
The highest price of a sale they could remember was $75,000. Wood said he once paid $4,200 for a unit.
Some have found dead animals in a unit. In one case, Rodriguez was with his mother and opened boxes filled with yarn, out of which jumped scores of mice.
“My mother did the Scooby-Do shuffle,” he said.
Wood, a sports fan, said he once bought a room and found a complete set of New York Yankees baseball cards from 1959 and another set of Mets cards from 1969.
Miller once got a room full of caskets.
“This is hard work,” Monetti said. “I’ve lost a lot of money in this business. It’s not like you see on TV. It’s not all glitter. That’s what I like about this show. Allen makes it as real as it is. What we find, we sell. What we can’t sell, we get rid of – if we can.”
Neuschafer said the value of things changes over time.
“Some things that were very valuable in the past, such as furniture, aren’t worth nearly as much today,” she said.
Wood once went into a room set up as a voodoo temple with all the deity images. Apparently, the person who rented it used it to perform services. Was there value in this?
Wood said he gambled that the rituals might have involved the use of gold coins.
Monetti, however, said that they are aware that with these sales come stories of human tragedy.
“These are people who in many cases are suffering real hardships,” he said.
So he said he makes sure to give back things that are clearly personal. The law requires that certain things be given back, such as medicine.
Wood said people have a misconception that they have no heart.
“We understand that in some cases, people have lost everything,” he said. “It could happen to me.”
This is the reason they will sometimes offer to allow people to buy back their own things either for the bid price or a moderate profit.
Wood said he doesn’t like keeping other people’s clothing. Neuschafer said they are in some ways recycling materials, often providing goods at lower prices than people would be able to get them otherwise.
“We’re providing them with things they might not be able to afford,” she said.
Monetti said sometimes he sells clothing to Dominican women who in turn send the clothing overseas.
Rodriquez said they often donate things to Salvation Army and Goodwill.
“We do try to give back,” he said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.