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Now arriving in Alabama: Your lost luggage

By Scott Mayerowitz

Associated Press

Published: Friday, April 15 2011 10:54 p.m. MDT

In this March 17, 2011 photo, shelves hold new and used DVD's at Unclaimed Baggage in Scottsboro, Ala. 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. (AP Photo/Michael Mercier)

Associated Press

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."

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