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 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.
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."
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.
Shoppers seem to have no qualms about buying what was once 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 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. Others, like 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 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.
This city of 15,000 in the northeast corner of Alabama is perhaps best known for a 1930s trial where nine young black men were accused of raping two white women. The Supreme Court twice threw out convictions saying the men weren't given a proper defense and appeared before all-white juries. How did it become the end of the line for lost suitcases?
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."
New York's Metro-North Railroad is paid $25 for each suitcase-size box of lost property. Big-ticket goods such as electronics or jewelry are sold for 30 percent of their value. Last year, Unclaimed Baggage paid Metro-North about $38,000 for about 5,000 items.
Other airlines — Alaska, Frontier, Hawaiian, Southwest, Spirit and Virgin America — donate luggage to charities such as the Salvation Army.
Worldwide, almost 2.5 billion bags are checked each year, and 850,000 are never seen again by their owner, says Nick Gates, who oversees baggage products for SITA, an aviation technology provider. In the U.S., those passengers are paid up to $3,300 by the airlines. Most claims are smaller. Airlines don't consider how much it costs to replace a passenger's wares, but how much they'd be worth used.
Airlines vary in their records for losing bags. Southwest says one of every 67,000 bags checked is never reunited with its owner. Delta loses bags 13 times as often. Since the introduction of baggage fees, they're all doing better. The rate at which bags are delayed or mishandled is now half what it was in 2007. Experts say the fees — airlines collect more than $3.3 billion a year — deter passengers from checking bags, easing strains on the system.
Still, some suitcases remain a mystery. The bags lack identification tags, which can be ripped off during conveyer belt jams. Airlines inventory the luggage and use a database to match the contents with owners' descriptions. Investigators also look for other clues.
"They don surgical gloves and then do an autopsy of the bags," says Jan Fogelberg, Frontier's vice president of customer experience.
Sometimes, it's as simple as a name on a prescription bottle. Other times, they track owners through store receipts left in pockets.Comment on this story
JetBlue once reunited two newlyweds with their bag after finding a photo inside of their wedding cake. The couple's first names were inscribed on the icing. In the background were palm trees and a pool. The airline guessed the couple had a destination wedding in Florida and matched the names on the cake with flight manifests.
Bags that reach the Alabama store are opened and the contents are prepared for sale. Laptop and iPod memories are wiped clean and 40,000 pieces of clothing are laundered each month.
Then the wet suits, rifles, coats, diamond earring and dresses are put out for shoppers.
While the 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.