- Associated Press - Thursday, April 21, 2011

SCOTTSBORO, Ala. | Welcome to the final resting place for lost luggage.

Along a 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-size facility that would put your local PTA garage sale to shame.

Past an entranceway of world clocks and columns decorated with foreign currency, one traveler’s misfortune turns into a bargain-hunter’s paradise.

“You never know what you may find,” says Clayton Grider, a Scottsboro youth minister who often starts his day at the store. “It is a sport.”

The Unclaimed Baggage Center, in Scottsboro, Ala., has become a mecca of sorts for bargain hunters looking to purchase travelers' lost possessions. (Associated Press)
The Unclaimed Baggage Center, in Scottsboro, Ala., has become a mecca of ... more >

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 of unsuccessfully trying to reunite passenger and parcel, many airlines sell the bags here.

Shoppers seem to have no qualms about buying what once may have been a child’s favorite stuffed animal or a wedding dress that didn’t get to the church on time.

“I feel sorry for the guy who lost it,” says Chuck Trykoski, who bought a digital camera for $21. “I mean, I’ve lost stuff on the airlines, too.”

Each day, the store sets out 7,000 new items, including sweaters, jeans, golf clubs, books and noise-canceling headphones. And it’s not just luggage. Plenty of belongings are left in seat-back 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. Others, like Mr. Trykoski, who was driving home to Illinois after a Florida vacation, stop out of curiosity. Local and regional church groups come by the busload. Most people hear about the store through media reports and ads in the state’s vacation guide.

It’s “an adventure” for the 830,000 shoppers a year, says Mr. Owens, who wears a Tag Heuer watch 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 Mr. Owens wanted to buy lost luggage from buses. Four years later, airline luggage was added. Since then, the store has expanded to merchandise culled from car-rental companies and 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 that 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.

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