Spend any time at an airport baggage claim and it won't be long before you spot a solitary suitcase going round and round on an otherwise empty carousel. Ever wondered what happens to that suitcase if the airline is unable to reunite it with its owner? Chances are it ultimately ends up at the Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC), a one-of-a-kind store that purchases lost and unclaimed bags from the airlines, then re-sells their contents—“lost treasures from around the world”—at one of two Alabama outlets.
Founded in 1970 by entrepreneur H. Doyle Owens, the original UBC was open just one day a week, a cozy little place where locals would congregate on Saturdays and troll for bargains. In contrast, today's flagship outlet—open six days a week and spanning more than a city block—is a cross between a department store and a thrift shop, offering a bedazzling assortment of merchandise at bargain basement prices. While locals still frequent the store in Scottsboro—not to mention “UBC Etc.,” a satellite located in Boaz, an hour to the south—the UBC has become a major tourist attraction. A stick pin-covered world map in the lobby boasts visitors from as far away as Perth (Australia), Istanbul (Turkey) and Harare (Zimbabwe), not to mention Turkmenistan, Trinidad & Tobago and Tasmania.
Naturally, most of the goods for sale are the sort of things one would expect to find in a suitcase or travel bag. The shelves are filled with men's, women's and children's clothing, plus cameras, camcorders, jewelry, eye glasses, perfume, toiletries, and of course, the luggage itself. There's also a wide selection of CDs, DVDs, books and portable music players—the kind of items that airline passengers tend to leave behind in seat-back pockets.
But at the UBC one can also expect the unexpected—a luxurious mink coat for two thousand dollars, or a richly embroidered wedding dress for $150.
However, a mink coat is positively unremarkable compared to other items that have come in over the years, including a medicine man's stick adorned with a shrunken head and a rare violin made by a student of Stradivarius. The U.S. Navy once lost track of a guidance system for an F-16 fighter jet valued at a quarter of a million dollars. And most remarkable of all, in 1980 the UBC received a large collection of Egyptian artifacts comprised of faience figures, beads and scarabs, plus a painted wood sarcophagus mask, all estimated to date from 1567-304 B.C.
Yet, most UBC shoppers don't come looking for the exotic, they come to find bargains. Karen Smith, a Microsoft certification teacher from Huntsville, Alabama, says she visits the store every two weeks “like clockwork.” With a husband and five kids Smith says she's always on the lookout for luxury goods that are priced to move. “I once bought a two-hundred dollar designer banquet dress for my daughter for ten dollars,” she begins. “But the electronics department is where I typically do best, especially with DVD's and CD's, which are priced at $3.99.”
Tom Gately, who also hails from Huntsville, says that in 1979 he bought a thousand-dollar [Italian] Benotto bicycle for eighty-five dollars. He's been coming to the UBC ever since—schlepping 45 minutes each way once every two months—looking for that tell-all-your-friends steal. Gately says he knows of one knowledgeable shopper who bought a diamond-tipped drill bit—the kind used on oil rigs—for five dollars. “When the UBC first opened the operators had little knowledge of the value of the things they were getting in,” he begins. “Today it's more of a challenge to find that great deal you just can't resist.”
Interestingly, the “regulars” don't seem to mind that the merchandise is pre-owned. Smith says she initially found the idea of buying used goods disquieting and perhaps even bad karma, but the prices helped her overcome her discomfort. The UBC claims that all clothing—including swimwear, undergarments and lingerie—is laundered or dry cleaned before being offered for sale, but Smith wonders whether the “as is” merchandise has actually been cleaned. “I will go through pockets and unzip zippers on ‘as is’ clothing because you sometimes find things. I see people going through the pockets on clothes all the time,” she reports.
Certainly, it's not unheard of for buyers to discover hidden treasures inside the merchandise. One woman bought her daughter a Barbie doll, and the rambunctious little girl promptly twisted the doll's head off, side-stepping punishment by presenting her mom with the roll of bills—$500—that was hidden inside. According to UBC employees, the Bonus Barbie incident prompted a run on dolls that lasted several weeks.
Found-money stories aside, the UBC can't get around the fact that it benefits from the misfortune of others. In an effort to minimize this public relations issue the UBC Web site—unclaimedbaggage.com—offers a long list of baggage-oriented travel tips. Among the bits of advice: Make sure the contact information on your ID tags is up-to-date; place a copy of your itinerary inside your luggage; write your name and address on all carry-on items; make an inventory of all items packed inside your bags; and always make sure to tip and be polite to your Skycap.
Unclaimedbaggage.com also assures site visitors that airlines take great pains to reunite owners with their bags, and that thanks to “sophisticated global tracing systems … less than .005% of all checked bags are permanently lost.” But that's hardly comforting for those who have suffered a loss. And considering that thousands of items are added to UBC stock on a daily basis, .005% still adds up to a lot of lost baggage.
Somehow the idiom “one man's loss is another man's gain” seems particularly apropos when referring to the UBC. But patrons aren't interested in getting philosophical; they simply yearn to experience the euphoria of finding a once-in-a-lifetime bargain. As Gately succinctly puts it, “You just never know what someone is going to lose.”