CHICAGO—Located in the Bucktown neighborhood, American Mini-Storage is one of Chicago's best-kept secrets, but don't expect it to stay that way for long. The self-storage facility houses what is arguably the nation's most impressive collection of personal items accumulated during periods of failure.

"There are 250 storage units here, and each one has a different pathetic story to tell," said Carlos Garcia, one of several client-relations managers at American Mini-Storage. "They run the gamut—from libraries of unread college textbooks to abandoned bolts of canvas to half-restored antique chests of drawers. Each storage locker is like a window into a separate life of disappointment and inadequacy."

American Mini-Storage opened on Armitage Street in autumn of 1996. Despite being relatively new to the market, facility managers have amassed an impressive collection, thanks to location, word of mouth, and generous contributions from anonymous donors.

"We have the largest collection of NordicTracks in North America, perhaps even the world," Garcia said. "Just by browsing the units, you can chart the evolution of the device—from rather simplistic machines to complex models with built-in cardio monitors."

"Public favor shifts, of course," Garcia added. "I anticipate a boom in the number of Bowflex home gyms permanently installed here in coming years."

The facility has a children's wing, housing dozens of unfinished model cars and airplanes, aquariums and Habitrails from pets long dead from neglect, and hideous ceramic art projects.

"This is a classic example of youthful failure," said Garcia, holding up a D-minus paper titled "Our First President George Washington" by Timmy Keadle. "This stack of essays is filled with all sorts of factual, spelling, and grammatical errors, but they're written so earnestly. Timmy was obviously trying very hard, but just couldn't nail the basics. This paper expresses a truth central to our facility: Failure knows no age limit."

"And this is only one of scores of papers we have just like it on site," Garcia added.

The storage units measure 6' x 6' x 7'. Curated individually by American Mini-Storage customers, each holds unique contents. Leading a tour through the B wing, Garcia gestured to several private galleries.

The Pete Tunney gallery features an impressive number of dust-covered musical instruments.

"This is the Mueller space," Garcia says. "It holds a crate of five partially written detective novels. And over here in the Sherman room, we have one of my favorite collections: the leftover inventory from a failed salad-dressing business. Oh, and take a look inside the Curtis collection. It boasts the decaying remains of an entire family's failure, including a sixth-place intramural-tennis trophy, a moth-eaten gymnastics uniform, and a file cabinet jammed with overdraft bank notices."

The facility features one of the nation's largest collections of fashions from the late 20th century.

"Our collection includes dozens of mint-condition size-6 dresses and never-been-worn swimwear," Garcia said. "Much of the clothing is displayed with beta aerobics tapes and long-abandoned diet journals."

Of particular interest is the musical wing, holding hundreds of long-deserted instruments.

"Nothing evokes dashed hopes like music," Garcia said. "In addition to the usual drums, guitars, and amplifiers abandoned after going-nowhere bands broke up, we have several trombones that came to us following the ska period."

"Oh, this is interesting," added Garcia, gesturing to 14 small boxes. "This is one of our most recent acquisitions. The boxes contain 495 copies of the first CD by a musician called Moldy Dick. All but three CDs are still in their shrink-wrap, and the three unwrapped ones were actually signed by the artist. It's heart-wrenching."

Like any curator, Garcia makes sure the items in his charge are kept in a climate-controlled environment to preserve their integrity. And like any curator, Garcia prefers certain exhibits.

"This is one of my personal favorites," said Garcia, sliding open the door to unit 235. "Look at the sparseness of the arrangement here—252 cubic feet available, and the customer has stored only two boxes, stacked one on top of the other. There's a Zen-like quality to the arrangement. One box holds women's clothing, the other photographs and letters, both of which seem to have once belonged to an ex-girlfriend. They've been here for six years, and the guy keeps paying the rent. Makes your head swim with possible scenarios of failure."

While the storage facility is by no means the only one of its kind, several factors have contributed to the breadth of its fascinating collection.

"Part of the reason for our success is that the neighborhood itself has been in drastic flux over the past 15 years," Garcia said. "As a result of Bucktown's gentrification, the Puerto Rican population has been displaced, followed by the artists and musicians, then the people on the first steps to their career. Everyone who has come and gone has needed a place to store painful reminders of the past. We are not just a storage facility, we are a repository for every imaginable setback a person can experience."