A&E's Storage Wars Rumages Through Tyler Spots
By COSHANDRA DILLARD
The world of storage unit auctions is nothing new, but it was thrust into the spotlight with A&E's reality show, "Storage Wars." Until recently, it's been a pastime of a select few who buy items left behind by those who did not continue paying for a storage unit or simply forgot about it.
Late last year, the network introduced "Storage Wars: Texas" to highlight a range of characters bargaining their way across the state -- Texas style. Most of the filming is in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
Victor Rjesnjansky is one of the featured bidders. He is tall, thin and wears his hair slicked back. Rjesnjansky seems to have a commanding presence wherever he goes, but besides his cowboy boots, there's not a lot of Texas style to him. As his moniker on the show implies, he's the outsider; Slick Vic, the Outsider, to be exact.
The Long Island, N.Y., native's fast-talking and aggressive style doesn't always connect well with his castmates, particularly Lesa Lewis, of Crockett, and he is not afraid to point out the tension between the two.
The hustle and bustle of New York City, along with its high cost of living, is what brought Rjesnjansky and his girlfriend, JoAnn Maresca, to Tyler.
They were looking for a place to semi-retire as they followed HGTV's Dream Home Tour in 2005. By 2007, they'd settled into a home on Lake Palestine. He also owns 31 House, a resale shop that contains many of his auction buys.
Rjesnjansky has followed the storage auction business since 1990. Back home, a sign with an arrow leading to an auction caught his attention one day. One of his early auctions gave him nearly a house full of furniture and necessities for his first home.
"The storage auctions were a big hobby in New York," he said. "I would do at least 10 auctions a year, just for storage facilities."
One of his earliest auctions yielded bedroom sets, dining room sets and kitchenwares -- almost a house full of furnishings.
"I ended up keeping a lot of the good stuff and selling what I had left and more than doubled what I spent on it as profit," he said. "That got me hooked. Now I wanted to find more."
More than 20 years later, he's still learning the tricks of the trade and the reality series helps him hone those skills.
Several times a week, he peruses auctions in the area to collect items that can be added to his shop. For the thrift shoppers, his store is a treasure trove of collectables, appliances, furniture and antiques.ALL IN A DAY'S WORK
A recent auction in Tyler did not have all the drama and suspense of a typical reality show. It was another day on the grind for Rjesnjansky. By 9:15 a.m., a crowd of about 60 had gathered outside a storage facility to sign forms and hear instructions before bidding began. It was the first of three storage facilities they'd visit that day.
The first unit for sale was no treasure chest. There was a dingy mattress set and a rust colored, retro-era leather couch. Everyone stood as if they were ready to move on to the next one. Terry Waters, an auctioneer, began the bidding to a quiet audience.
"Five bucks!" Rjesnjansky shouted. It went once, twice, and sold to Rjesnjansky.
It's not an exciting find, but Rjesnjansky felt he'd get a profit off of the old couch. And he did. He sold it for $80 the next day.
Another unit up for auction was crammed with kitchenwares, clothing and framed art. It's like judging a book by its cover because bidders can only see what's in front of the room, Rjesnjanksy said. He bought the unit's contents for $10. It wasn't an eye-popping find, but it wasn't a waste either.
"It was a good room for every day products that I sell in my shop," he said.
He later mentioned that the contents contained some 20 pairs of jeans -- still in good condition -- and high-end handbags, including a Coach purse. His profits would far exceed the 10 bucks he paid for the unit.
After a day of bidding, the real work begins. There's loading, unloading, sorting and tagging. Rjesnjansky is meticulous in the organization of his store.
Sometimes, Ms. Maresca, who operates the store, tags along to auctions. She is a selective collector. She started learned more about antiques when she moved to Texas, buying books to help her recognize valuables. She's not as aggressive and doesn't negotiate prices like Rjesnjansky.
"I'm a thriftier," she said. "He likes to buy things in bulk. I like to sort through the stuff ... It's a treasure hunt, is what it is."
They both owned businesses in New York so it was a weekend hobby, just for things they needed or wanted. Then it changed.
"The yard sale turned into a bigger yard sale, then turned into an estate sale, turned into a resale shop," Ms. Maresca explained.
Rjesnjansky won't say what his most interesting find has been so far while filming the show, because it hasn't aired yet. He did point out that in New York, he has found nice furnishings and about $8,000 worth of gold jewelry in a room he spent only $250 on.
There usually is a good crowd at these auctions. Last month, up to 175 showed up in the rain at a Tyler storage facility and more than 200 attend auctions across the state.
Before storage-unit auctioning became popular, buyers would pay as low as $5 for giant rooms filled with resalable items.
"It's almost been a secret society because during the week everybody's at work so nobody knew about it," Waters said following an auction. "So you'd only have about three, four or five people show up at these things. They dominated the market so if somebody did show up outside, they'd run them up so high, they'd pay so much they couldn't make any money.
He added, "Now, since the TV exposed it, everybody comes and now people are paying more."
Resale shop owners, online business owners, retirees and flea market collectors are getting in on the action.
"It's a great way to make extra income," he said. "If you have the gumption to do it you can make some money."
Waters, 52, has been an auctioneer since he was 14. The Aledo resident was offered several times by producers of Storage Wars: Texas to be a part of the show.
He and his wife, Lou Ann, however, did not want to be a part of it. Their auction business is their full time job. In addition to the storage facilities, they also work estate auctions and business liquidations on their travels. They come to Tyler once a month.
"That's not the direction we want to go in," Mrs. Waters said.
Waters chimed in, "You've got to go where the TV tells you. We'd lose our business we've established."
Nonetheless, the couple like Rjesnjansky's personality and enjoy his friendship.
"He's a character," Mrs. Waters said. "He's always been a character. He hasn't changed at all. He likes getting autographs and all but he's the same. The show, he does a little more extra stuff for the show."
"He's always talking and got a story for everybody," Waters added. "That's Victor. What you see is what you get. That's him."
The Waters won't change their mind about reality shows anytime soon.
"It's entertaining for a show, no doubt about it," Waters added. "I told them I'd do it if it was a different format. I don't like all that cussing and fighting and bickering that they do."BECOMING A REALITY STAR
Television show producers asked auctioneers from across the state who were repeat bidders or who did it for a living. Rjesnjansky's name came up.
They started filming last July for six months, making 16 episodes. So far, six episodes have aired. Rjesnjansky is ready for season two, which begins in March, and he's proud about the show's following.
"When the show premiered Dec. 6, we were the most viewed premier," he said. "We had the biggest premier audience ever that A&E has ever had. It doubled. We had 4.1 million viewers -- the biggest they had prior to that was 1.9 million."
Rjesnjansky said the cast were told by the show's producers to expect a dip in viewership for the second episode, but it was up by 600,000. They average 3.8 to 4 million viewers per show.
Rjesnjansky was a fan of the first reality shows such as Big Brother and MTV's Real World. His interest peaked again with History Channel's Swamp People.
"I think it's about the people," he said. "It's about the interesting characters that they find. They have an interesting way of life but if you don't have an interesting personality or look about you or something, nobody is going to want to see you on TV. It's people wanting to see how other people actually live."
Rjesnjansky would not say how much income he receives from the reality show, but that it "pays just like a good job."
He's not short on confidence and is pleased with the reception he's gotten locally.
"If the show continues I'm going to be on the show," he said. "They're not going to get rid of me with no shotgun. They're not going to chase me off the show. I'm not leaving. I'm not going nowhere."