Every traveler has experienced it at some point: that sinking feeling of watching all the other suitcases reunited with their weary owners at baggage claim but not seeing your own slide down the conveyor belt. While you stand there forlornly, wondering where your luggage has gone without you (and how many pairs of underwear you packed in your carry-on), you may also find your thoughts straying to what’s inside those other lumpy, oddly shaped bags gliding by on the carousel. The answers can be found at Unclaimed Baggage, the nation’s only retailer of lost luggage, found nowhere near a major airport, in the most unlikely town of Scottsboro, Alabama. “You have to go over the mountains and through the woods to get here,” said Jennifer Kritner, vice president for retail and company culture at Unclaimed Baggage. “But that’s part of the mystery.”
In 1970, local insurance salesman Doyle Owens got a tip from a buddy about a load of 100 unclaimed suitcases at the Trailways Bus Line in Washington, D.C. His wife Sue was none too pleased about the hare-brained idea, but Owens borrowed $300 and a pickup truck to follow through on his entrepreneurial hunch. He set up the wayward items on folding tables inside an empty rental house, and it turned out there were lots of curious people who love to peek at other people’s belongings. Owens made back his investment and then some, soon quitting his insurance job to sell unclaimed luggage and their contents, full time. He secured a contract with Eastern Airlines then gradually expanded to all major U.S. airlines. Today Unclaimed Baggage is the only place in the U.S. you can buy lost luggage, and the business remains in the family to this day.
Airlines succeed about 95 percent of the time in reuniting travelers with bags that go astray, but with 25 million misdirected suitcases each year, that still leaves a lot of orphaned belongings. After a three-month search process, those lost pieces end up here. Unclaimed Baggage handles 5,000-7,000 new items each day on their retail floor, and their in-house laundry facility washes 50,000 pieces of clothing every month.
Not everything in a suitcase is suitable for retail, but Unclaimed Baggage tries to find a use for as many things as they possibly can. “We were sustainable before sustainability was cool,” Kritner said. “We don’t want anything to go to the landfill.”
Prescription eyewear is donated to the Lions Club International SightFirst Foundation and provided to people around the world in need of glasses. Wheelchairs are delivered to prisons where they are refurbished and distributed to people in need. Hard-sided suitcases are decorated by local school children then donated to the Department of Human Resources so foster children – who frequently are forced to move their belongings in garbage bags – have a personalized and dignified way to pack their things. If an item can’t be sold or donated, it gets recycled if at all possible.
Suitcases arrive at Unclaimed Baggage completely unopened, so every bag is a mystery. A team of experienced processors sorts and values the items, but what they find can be awfully surprising. Kritner said they do maintain a very good relationship with the local sheriff’s office to deal with your everyday illicit items, but then there are the truly off-the-wall ones, like the live rattlesnake once found in the outside pocket of a duffel bag or the 50 vacuum-packed frogs.
And sometimes the contents are bizarre in the most delightful ways: trunks full of Versace runway gowns and elaborately hand-painted kimonos; complete suits of armor; Neil Diamond’s xylophone; Paul McCartney’s jacket; a set of McDonald’s arches; an aluminum fire suit. Once, Sue Owens, the original owner’s wife, set aside a piece of unfinished needlework, recognizing that the craftsmanship was particularly impressive. A few days later, the store received a call from Bing Crosby’s wife, Kathryn, asking if anyone had found it. Sometimes items are too rare, important or revered to sell or keep at the store: Egyptian artifacts for example, are handled by Christie’s. Items of deep religious significance are handed over to the appropriate religious authorities. When a camera from the Space Shuttle was discovered, it was returned to NASA. (Conveniently NASA is only an hour away in Huntsville.) Perhaps the most famous find was the puppet Hoggle from Jim Henson’s 1986 film Labyrinth. Hoggle was never intended to last beyond the end of production, so he was severely deteriorated on arrival in 1997. He was restored by master doll doctor Gary Sowatzka and now greets guests at the front door.
While every suitcase tells a story, the customers can be just as intriguing. The jewelry case always boasts some stunning pieces, including, at one point, a 40-carat natural emerald that was found inside a worn sock, stuffed into the corner of a suitcase. A modest and unassuming elderly couple who were frequent customers took a liking to the stone and came back the next day with $14,000 in cash taken out of their deep freezer. They didn’t believe in banks.
A surprising number of men’s wedding bands are found tucked away into checked luggage, and the lost wedding gowns can make one feel a bit wistful and sad for the brides whose wedding days didn’t turn out the way they’d hoped. But Kritner and the rest of the staff are also quick to remember the brides who wouldn’t be wearing Vera Wang on their special days if not for the deals they found at Unclaimed Baggage.
If you visit, keep a sharp eye out. One customer purchased a pair of ski boots he thought his wife would like. When she opened them, she found her maiden name inked on the inside. You never know when your own lost things might turn up.