SCOTTSBORO, Ala. — Welcome to the final resting place for lost luggage. Along an Alabama country road next to a muffler shop and a cemetery is a 40,000-square-foot store filled with all the items that never made it home from vacation. Shoes, samurai swords, iPods, even lingerie, all available for 20 percent to 80 percent off.
When airlines can't determine who owns a bag, they sell it for a few bucks to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, a warehouse-sized facility that would put your local PTA garage sale to shame.
"You never know what you may find," says Clayton Grider, a Scottsboro, Ala., youth minister who often starts his day there. "It is a sport."
More than 2 million of the roughly 700 million suitcases checked on U.S. airlines last year didn't arrive with their owners. The vast majority were returned within 24 hours, typically on the next flight. But 68,000 never made it. After 90 days unsuccessfully trying to reunite passenger and parcel, most airlines sell the bags here.
Each day, the store sets out 7,000 new items. And it's not just luggage. Plenty of belongings are left in seatback pockets.
"It's kind of an archaeological snapshot of popular culture," says Bryan Owens, son of the store's founder and its owner since 1995.
Regulars line up each morning to get first crack at the goods. Tourists come too. Most hear about it through media reports and ads in the state's vacation guide.
It's "an adventure" for the 830,000 shoppers a year, says Owens, who wears a Tag Heuer watch once found in a suitcase.
There have been some surprising discoveries over the years, including moose antlers, a parachute, a medieval suit of armor, even a shrunken head. Just don't come here expecting to find your lost luggage. Only a third of the items received make it to the racks. The rest are donated to charity or trashed. The store hopes to offer a small sliver of its ever-changing inventory online by the end of this year.
Unclaimed Baggage was started in 1970 by Doyle Owens, a part-time insurance salesman in Scottsboro who had a friend working at a bus line in Washington. One day the friend asked if he wanted to buy lost luggage from buses. Four years later, airline luggage was added. Since then, the store has expanded to car rental companies, commuter trains and is eyeing cruises.
The airlines don't like to discuss how their customers' belongings end up here. American, Delta and United refused interviews. US Airways, JetBlue and AirTran acknowledged they sell items in bulk — sight unseen — to the store but wouldn't say how much they are paid, citing confidentiality clauses in their contracts.
"It's not something that we make money off," says Bill Race, who oversees luggage for JetBlue. "It's probably less than what you paid for lunch."
Other airlines — Alaska, Frontier, Hawaiian, Southwest, Spirit and Virgin America — donate luggage to charities such as the Salvation Army.
While this store might be an addiction for some bargain-hunters, others come just for the kitsch factor. After rummaging through the shelves, Auburn University students Ryan Little and Jordan Haden walked out with a Will Smith CD, a Destiny's Child greatest-hits album and a Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen hair dryer. The total cost: $13.76.
"It's a last chance," Little says, "for somebody to make a profit off impulse buys and bad Christmas presents."