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How a Texas man turned $330 storage bin buy into treasure trove

The very last thing Alan Hairston was supposed to do with even a fraction of the borrowed $1,200 in his pocket was take a gamble.

But he couldn't help himself. He had a feeling. He just had to.

Turns out, he may have won a lottery of sorts. When all is said and done, his $330 reach could bring a return of as much as $100,000 in a sports memorabilia auction. Who knew that magazines — a complete collection of Sports Illustrated — might be that valuable.

On the last Thursday morning of March, Alan, a 27-year-old unemployed butcher, took a chunk of the cash burning a hole in his pocket and spent it at a storage auction.

Most of the money was supposed to cover the April rent on his family's Allen apartment. His 23-year-old wife, Jacqui, reminded him of just that as he climbed from the cab of the family's 2003 White Silverado pickup, which also had a monthly payment due, and headed into a storage facility in Plano, Texas.

Jacqui would have joined her husband, but they had their 22-month-old son along for the ride and children were not welcome at the auction.

Alan transitioned full time from slicing meat to chasing repossessed storage units in October after being laid off by the supermarket chain where he had worked for nine years. His fallback was storage auctions.

He and Jacqui became intrigued with the phenomenon of buying units, contents unknown, after discovering Storage Wars on cable television. At first it was just a hobby. They attended to observe others but not bid. Gradually, they tiptoed into their own little skirmishes, buying units for $25 to $50 and learning just how competitive auctions can be.

Mixed outcomes

Alan, who once enjoyed gambling at casinos in Oklahoma, found a similar rush at storage auctions. Their most profitable storage purchase had been a $200 unit they found loaded with boxes filled with unused dental drills. In one of the boxes, they found an invoice for $22,000.

They sold the drills online to someone in China. They were giddy when the buyer paid $8,000 American.

Other payoffs have not been so bountiful. They've opened units to find urns containing cremated human ashes, cats embalmed in cement tombs, extra-extra-large men's clothing few could be interested in buying and plenty of old furniture.

"Crappy furniture," said Jacqui, who is studying to be a veterinary technician. "Not antiques."

But now in the Sports Illustrated magazines, they and a prominent Dallas auction house believe they discovered a mother lode.

On the morning of March 30, Alan, remembering the drills, threw caution to the wind.

He bid on the very first storage unit that came up for bid.

Alan was immediately intrigued when the auctioneer opened the unit for the standard look-but-no-touch inspection. He was mesmerized by dozens of white boxes with different years scribbled on each and several brown boxes labeled "Hyundai."

"Auto parts," Alan told himself.

Alan opened the bidding. "One hundred dollars," he said. None of the 20 or so other would-be rival bidders seemed interested.

Then someone barked, "$200."

"Three hundred," countered Alan, who just the previous day had successfully bid on a unit costing less money and found himself the owner of six used electric wheelchairs. "But nobody wants used wheelchairs," he lamented.

When the dust cleared this time, Alan was out the $330.

There's no telling how high he might have gone if the pesky rival bidder had insisted on hanging around.

"Whenever I want a unit," Alan said, "I don't stop until I get it."

But what would he say to his wife watching their son back in the Silverado?

Nothing would soothe her.

"I was angry," said Jacqui, whose parents had loaned the young couple much of the $1,200 and had been encouraging them to give up auctions for a more traditional source of income.

She calmed down when they had time to examine their purchase.

"At first I thought they were comic books," Alan said.

Alan had never in his life bought a single copy of Sports Illustrated. Neither had Jacqui. The only time Alan ever had held the magazine was when he flipped through its pages at a doctor's office.

But there was something about his new Sports Illustrated collection that made him feel giddy. They were meticulously preserved, delicately wrapped. They appeared untouched by human hand.

More than magazines

Now, husband and wife had more than 3,000 magazines sitting in 67 white boxes. They ranged from Sports Illustated's debut issue in August 1954 through the final issue of 2015. As a bonus, they found they also owned never-released prototypes from 1953. It was as if each had just come hot off a press. A few were duplicates — some autographed, some not. There were no messy subscription labels. In the brown "Hyundai" boxes, they discovered a treasure trove of reel-to-reel audio taped interviews, each labeled with a date and an interviewee's name. Included in the collection is a mid-1980s conversation with the owner of the New Jersey Generals of the defunct U.S. Football League. If only they had an ancient tape machine to hear what Donald Trump had to say.

Chris Stone, editorial director of Sports Illustrated, has been with the magazine for 25 years. He said he has "never heard a story like this."

From his New York office, Stone said he had no idea how the magazines and tapes ended up at a storage auction in suburban Dallas. He was particularly excited to hear about the prototypes.

"How?" he asked.

"Who?" he followed up.

One clue might have been a name the Hairstons found on a slip of paper in one of the boxes. But Randy Best, a prominent Dallas entrepreneur and philanthropist, said via email he knew nothing about the magazines. "I am not a sport collector and have not been one," he wrote.

Alan and Jacqui have no idea how their treasure found a home in storage. Or who originally owned them and how he or she got them. Or who rented the unit.

Nor are they interested in finding out. They just know they have a bill of sale from the Plano storage facility. Miranda Balduf, district manager for Public Storage, said she knew Alan and Jacqui's story but was not permitted to speak to the media. She referred all questions to the chief legal counsel at company headquarters in Southern California. The lawyer did not immediately return telephone messages.

But Alan did know what to do with his find. The day after the purchase, Alan called the father of an-ex girlfriend who works for Dallas-based Heritage Auctions, which bills itself as "the world's largest collectibles auctioneer."

Heritage was intrigued but not overly enthusiastic.

"Magazine collecting does not have a huge market," said Peter Calderon, whose specialty at Heritage is "vintage cards."

Still, the Hairstons were welcome to bring in a sample of their find.

Upon close inspection, Calderon told Alan and Jacqui that the collection, which, of course, included, the very first swimsuit edition released in January 1964, was "high grade and very rare."

Calderon estimated the value of the collection at anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000."

As a precaution, he told them that Heritage would insure the lot for a total value of $105,000.

'Storage Wars' connection

Over the years, Alan and Jacqui have bought and sold the contents of units with Kenny Stowe, who hosted Storage Wars Texas on the A&E network in 2014.

Based in Athens, Stowe said he has been "buying lockers for at least 25 years." He cautioned that value and what a haul might bring could be vastly different numbers.

"The true value of items is what someone will pay for them in $100 bills, not what someone tells you they are worth," he said. "There are no guarantees in this business."

Television's Storage Wars, he said, was not a realistic representation of the business. Too many treasures discovered. Not enough representation of junk.

"People are buying lockers with their retirement money and going broke," Stowe said.

While they wait and hope to make what would be a fortune for them, Alan and Jacqui can't help but believe they are holding a winning lottery ticket.

"This is going to jump-start the rest of out lives," Jacqui said. "We will be able to have a future that is better than I thought. We may be able to pay off our vehicles, get a house and take a trip."

Alan said he has no plans to heed his in-laws urgings to get back to a 9-to-5 job. He'll keep attending auctions.

"This is a dream come to life," he said. "Everybody hopes to win the lottery. I have to believe we just did."

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