Since he was 17 years old, Nigel Jackson of Saint Albans, Queens, has been collecting second-hand valuables and selling them for profit. From antique baseball cards, to university textbooks, to a Civil War-era poem written by a Southern slave, Jackson has turned other people’s old belongings into money. Between flea market sales and online trading sites such as eBay and Amazon, he says he can reap up to $20,000 during the holidays alone. That is if, he says, he’s disciplined and works every day.
And that is if he has a van.
“My transmission went out on me two weeks ago,” he says one recent chilly evening, his eyes flaring and a grin of disbelief spreading across his face. “I need to get a new van as fast as possible.”
On a typical workday, the 25-year-old wakes up at 6:00 AM, gets into a white Dodge 350 cargo van (he’s had eight so far) and drives straight to one of hundreds of self-storage facilities between New Jersey and Long Island. When renters default on their monthly payments, the storage companies reclaim the space by auctioning off all of the contents to bidders like Jackson. They clip the lock, open the sheet-metal doors, and allow bidders five minutes to appraise the contents without stepping foot inside. Depending on how much will fit in his van, Jackson purchases as many as five roomfuls of other people’s stuff in the course of one day before listing the goods on the Internet.
“This time of year, everyone is bidding and buying,” he says. “But there’s no point in bidding at storage auctions if I can’t drive away with what I find.”
For a man who’s losing almost $750 a day, Jackson is surprisingly cheerful and calm as he crosses the Harlem River in a white Ford passenger van – this one not his own. In November he began working as a shuttle driver for a Bronx apartment building to earn some steady income on the side.
“I don’t really need the money,” he says just before pulling up to the tolls on the Henry Hudson Parkway. He smiles widely as he hands the toll-worker three dollars, makes direct eye contact, and says “thank you” like he means it.
“All that I make driving the shuttle I reinvest in my auction business,” he says. “It’s nice to have this steady source of income that I know I can use to buy more merchandise.” As he crosses beneath the George Washington Bridge on Riverside Drive, he spots a Manhattan Storage facility where he says he once made $40,000 on a single unit. For that kind of money, one might expect the contents to include heirloom jewelry, or perhaps a grandfather clock.
“Books,” he said. “Wall to wall, top to bottom, books. I didn’t sell them all at once, but you don’t have to on the Internet. Just be patient and they’ll sell themselves. It’s recession-proof.”
Recent market numbers for companies like Amazon and eBay seem to agree. According to the market-research firm comScore, U.S. consumers spent $641 million on on-line purchases during Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. That’s up 11 percent from last year. Amazon saw the biggest growth with sales up 28 percent from 2008.
“Wall Street can fall to zero tomorrow and you will still make money on Amazon.com,” says Jackson as he recalls his biggest “scores” – vintage Jimmy Hendrix hand puppets; an original Joe Frazier v. Muhammad Ali poster; baseball cards printed in an era when the backs had no writing – precious things that once said something about the owners who left them behind. Today they say more about resourceful entrepreneurs like Jackson. “It’s a lucrative business,” he said. “The ‘junk business’ as I like to call it. That’s what I’m doing – I’m selling other people’s junk.”
For Jackson, “junk” is a passion. The stubble-faced New Yorker speaks about it with the zeal of a child who’s gotten all of his birthdays on the same day. Even on his off days he canvasses the metropolitan area like a bloodhound for forgotten treasure behind the cinderblock walls of self-storage units. It’s what he loves and he makes money doing it. A lot of money.
“I made $120,000 the first year I went into business on my own,” he said. “I was 19.”
The business first beckoned when Jackson was in high school and in need of a part-time job. He says he began working at a Brooklyn thrift store on Lyndon Boulevard for $15 an hour loading and unloading auction goods. As Jackson’s instincts for spotting profitable merchandise developed, his boss started sending him to auctions on his own. At first, Jackson got 33 percent of all profits. Then it was half.
“I started to realize that I was doing all the work,” he said. “I was driving out there, bidding on stuff, putting it on eBay. I saw [my boss] was making a six-figure income for what? Selling junk. I wanted in.”
Since the start of the recession, Jackson’s business is booming as a growing number of Americans fail to pay the rent on their storage units on time. According to a 2007 study by Mother Jones, more than one in 11 households rented storage space, which translated to seven square feet of commercial storage space for every American. In 2009 – amid an employment crisis and the collapse of the housing market – experts say that many renters simply can’t make ends meet.
“It’s a sign of the times,” said Chris Longly of the National Auctioneers Association. “People can’t pay their rent. It’s an unfortunate situation, but facilities have to vacate that space if they’re going to recoup their losses.”
Tai Washington, executive secretary of marketing for U-Haul’s New York division, says storage facilities try to make deals with delinquent renters by offering payment plans. However, some will ultimately lose their belongings.
“When they’re faced with the choice between putting food on the table and paying for storage, they’re going to choose food,” she said.
Frederic Calderon, manager of a U-Haul storage facility in the Bronx neighborhood of Kingsbridge, said that when renters fall behind, their possessions aren’t immediately sold off.
“Once they’re 30 days delinquent, it doesn’t go straight to auction,” he said. “They typically have another six months.”
But even that’s often not enough time for some renters to come up with the money. In his nine-year career, Jackson says those who are especially attached to their things often find a way of tracking him down to get it back.
“Most of the time it’s women,” he said. “I guess it’s the pride thing with men, they don’t want to come back asking for their stuff. If they do want it back, they’ll send a woman to get it.”
While he says that he can’t get too caught up in the personal drama if he’s going to make a living in this business, Jackson admits that he also can’t forget that people’s lives are packed up in cardboard boxes and masking tape.
“These could be the only possessions they have to their name; what if this were my stuff?” he said. “I would want someone to work something out with me and help me get it back. That’s what I do.”
Sometimes Jackson will track down the owner when he’s found things he can’t sell such as photographs and letters. He says he often finds financial records as well.
“These things could easily fall into the wrong hands,” he said. "You lose your room, you could lose your entire life, your whole identity.”
Renters often cannot be found, either because they’ve died, moved away, or for other reasons. Jackson says he once found a unit in Harlem full of old marijuana and cocaine, which he says were likely abandoned by a drug dealer who couldn’t retrieve it before going to jail. Jackson said he turned the drugs in to law enforcement.
A woman once left behind a stash of occult paraphernalia.
“She actually had potions and books on how to turn your boyfriend into a toad and stuff that you had to mix up in a bowl,” he said. “Real weird and freakish stuff, dolls, unicorns. It almost looked like voodoo and black magic. That was a real weird one for me.”
Fortunately for Jackson, there’s a market for that. “If anything, weird books do well,” he said. “But I didn’t want my hand to fall off or anything so I discarded the rest.”
Knowing what to throw out and what to sell is key in Jackson’s line of work. But a lot of the risk – as well as the allure – depends on good or bad luck. Jackson’s had his share of both. The unit that gave him the Jimmy Hendrix hand puppets ranks as one of his most lucrative finds to date. But the owner had a second room that Jackson ignored due to shabby appearance.
“A friend of mine got that one,” he said. “Inside were slave trading records and the captain’s log from a slave ship.”
Jackson said that friend has been leasing those items to museums and will do so for the rest of his life. So far the friend has made more than $100,000, Jackson said. He might be forgiven for being jealous or frustrated, but when Jackson tells the story, he’s more caught up by the wonder of the narrative than his own bad luck. A loss doesn’t keep him up at night.
“No! Not at all, because there’s more out there,” he said. “That’s how I look at it.”
With that, he pulls over on Broadway and picks up his Upper West Side passengers in a van that isn’t his.
“I’ve got to get a new van,” he said.
“It’s out there. The right one’s out there.”