Lost luggage is a fact of life. Airlines try for months to reunite passengers with their belongings. If that is unsuccessful, claims are paid and flyers are left to replace their lost goods. Where does it all go—the headphones, straw hats, bikinis, cameras, clothes? It might turn up in the most unlikely of places, a small town in northeast Alabama called Scottsboro.
Scottsboro, Ala., has made it into national publications like The New York Times, The Huffington Post and Vogue all because of the Unclaimed Baggage Center. Brenda Cantrell, Brand Ambassador, calls the UBC’s backstory the perfect example of “the great American dream.”
In 1970, Doyle Owens, a part-time insurance salesman, drove up to Washington D.C. to purchase his first set of unclaimed bags from a bus line. He started his business with a $300 loan from one grandfather, a truck from the other and his bride, Sue, riding shotgun on the trips. Doyle and Sue repaired and laundered the items found in the suitcases and then presented them for sale to the public in a small rental house.
The UBC is still purchasing unclaimed baggage—and freight and cargo—sight unseen and making it available to the public. Cantrell said a frequently asked question is, “Why Scottsboro?” No one knew then that the UBC would one day reside in a 40,000-square-foot building, with upwards of 5,000 pieces of merchandise coming in daily or that it would be a shopping destination that would attract visitors from more than 40 different countries each month.
“There’s something special about being in a quaint, small town, and people having to make a trek to get here,” said Cantrell. “It’s a little more road-trip worthy.”
Approximately 1 million people walk through the doors of the UBC each year, some regulars from right down the road and some from across the country and the world.
There are deals to be had in Scottsboro, but many come for the experience. In 47 years of unpacking strangers’ suitcases, many oddities have been found, and the most peculiar are on display at the UBC Museum and mounted at the top of the walls in the retail center, including full suits of armor, Chinese dragon kites and taxidermied animals. All in a day’s work for UBC employees like Cantrell, who has been an employee for 19 years.
“I had been working there for around five years when a bracelet came to my desk that had 25 carats of diamonds on it,” she said. “Since then, nothing has surprised me.”
At 2:30 p.m. each day, a customer is selected to unpack a suitcase, revealing the treasures—or trash—inside.
The bulk of what’s sold isn’t oddities like those found in the museum, but everyday items like clothing and small electronics. What doesn’t meet UBC standards is thrown away or donated to causes like The Salvation Army, Lions Club, medical mission teams, local schools and charities. Their donations account for around one-third of the items that make their way to the facility. Items that are chosen for the sales floor are cleaned—clothes are laundered and electronics are wiped of information.
Everyone’s favorite UBC story is about a pair of long-lost skis and their fateful return to their rightful owner.
“Every November, we have our annual ski sale. We have people who camp out and we have several hundred people at the store before it opens that day. This particular man was shopping in the store after the ski sale and saw a particular pair of ski boots he thought his wife would enjoy. They were her style and looked to be her size, so he just bought them for $45 and took them home to the Atlanta area where they lived. When she saw them, she said that they looked familiar. She looked in the tongue and there was her maiden name,” Cantrell said. “She had lost the boots a couple years before and been reimbursed by her airline, and they had ended up with us.”
In addition to the ski sale, other big-ticket items visitors make the trek for are designer clothes, shoes, and handbags; musical instruments; jewelry; and art. Prices are 20-80% off retail, depending on the condition of the item.
Whether you visit for the deals or to track down your favorite concert tee that you lost on a flight to California, the Unclaimed Baggage Center will not disappoint. Even if you leave empty-handed, the experience of sifting through orphaned goods of unknowing strangers is one you won’t soon forget.