IT IS a moment every traveller dreads. You wait for your luggage at the carousel after a flight, but the last bags come and go, and yours isn’t among them. You leave your name and number with the airline and wait for a call. Weeks go by; the phone never rings.
Is there any hope of tracking down these lost items? There could be, but it might require a trip to a small town in the wilderness of northeastern Alabama. And some luck.
All across America, bags routinely go missing and unclaimed, for a variety of reasons. All of them make a strange journey to a remote corner of the country and a gigantic thrift store in Scottsboro, Alabama, where they are unpacked and the contents sold to shoppers.
The Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC, pictured) began as a one-man operation in 1970, when Doyle Owens borrowed a pickup truck, drove to Washington, DC, and used a $300 loan to buy his first load of orphaned luggage. Today the company has exclusive contracts with American airlines, giving it sole rights to purchase and sell detritus from flights. The UBC claims to be one of Alabama’s top tourist attractions, drawing more than a million visitors a year from around the globe.
Only a tiny fraction of passengers’ luggage makes it to Scottsboro. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, just 3.86 bags for every 1,000 flyers go initially unclaimed. Of those, nearly 98% find their way to their owners within five days. Then, over the next three months, half of the remaining bags make it home.
But if that 90-day period passes, the leftovers become the property of the airlines. They then sell it to the UBC, which loads it onto tractor-trailers at airports around the country and transports it to Scottsboro. (The airlines don’t turn a profit, but recoup some of their costs associated with tracking and handling lost luggage.) Even that small percentage is quite a haul. The warehouse occupies more than a city block; the main building has 40,000 square feet of shopping space, and a three-story annex is located next door.
The shop’s processing centre sorts the items and prices those appropriate for sale. The company appraises jewellery, tests electronics and wipes them of personal data, and dry-cleans more than 20,000 items of clothing a day at its own facility. (Which, it says, makes it the largest dry-cleaning operation in Alabama.) Most of the items for sale are what you would expect: clothing, cameras, golf clubs. But sometimes more exotic treats turn up, such as vacuum-packed frogs, a 19th-century replica suit of armour, and an engraved tombstone.
According to Thrillist, most items are sold for a discount of 20-80%; jewellery is sold at half its appraised value. But since not all items are appraised, there are sometimes great deals. A traveller from Mexico City once bought a $20,000 painting for $60.
Customers in need of fashion assistance can hire a personal shopper on site. Every day at 2.30, visitors can win the chance to open unprocessed bags themselves. And if they find, say, a suit of armour that they would like to take home, the store does ship.
The UBC has mostly rave reviews on TripAdvisor, where it’s ranked number one out of all the (six) things to do in Scottsboro. The most recent correspondent spent seven hours there; another this month wrote that it was “definitely worth the 5 1/2 hour drive from Indiana!” One reviewer warned, however, that the store limits shoppers to three laptops per customer.
But if you are the frustrated soul from the top of this story, pining for a lost suitcase, don’t count on the UBC staff to find it for you. The FAQ section on its website asks, “Can you find my lost suitcase (glasses/laptop/jewelry/favorite sweater)?” The answer is: “Regrettably, ‘No.’”