Unclaimed Baggage Center
If you've ever lost a piece of luggage on a plane, train, or bus, odds are that six months later it ended up in Scottsboro, Alabama -- with a price tag -- at Unclaimed Baggage Center.
According to Brenda Cantrell, UBC's marketing manager, only a tiny fraction of all luggage technically gets "lost," and a lot of time and money is then spent trying to reunite it with its owners. Only when all avenues are exhausted does it end up at UBC -- although that still amounts to countless bags every year. Brenda said that with so much luggage always in transit, it reflects well on America's mass transit carriers that there's only one place like UBC.
We imagined UBC as a cavernous warehouse with a colossal baggage carousel, carrying a continuous steam of suitcases and backpacks, sold with contents sight unseen to daredevil buyers.
Instead, it looks like a department store. A floor plan directs you to familiar shopping sections such as electronics, books, and sports equipment. Clothes are neatly displayed on racks, all cleaned and pressed (UBC runs the largest dry cleaning plant in Alabama). There's virtually no chance that the iPad or laptop you buy will have personal information, as every device is digitally wiped.
UBC winnows what it gets to what it feels is the best stuff, then moves it out to its racks and bins. Inventory is based on whatever UBC receives, although the store -- as you might expect -- has lots of typical travel items such as clothes, paperback books, and golf clubs. And, of course, luggage. Thousands of digital cameras and noise-canceling headphones hang in baggies, a consumer electronics morgue. UBC gets so many donut-shaped neck pillows that it donates them to nursing homes.
Then there are what UBC calls "found treasures," individual oddities that make shopping at UBC unique -- such as a bearskin preserved in salt, or 50 vacuum-sealed frogs, or a camera from the Space Shuttle (which UBC returned to NASA). "Some people will pack anything that fits in a bag," said Brenda.
Some of the stranger items are set aside as permanent displays within the store, a Lost Luggage Hall of Fame. We spotted an ancient-looking Russian painting of John the Baptist's severed head; a ten-foot-long Tibetan musical horn; a matched pair of McDonald's golden arches; and an Eskimo face carved into the spine-marrow of a vertebra from a humpback whale. UBC's unofficial mascot, the four-foot-tall Hoggle, is another found treasure. It's a Jim Henson puppet-goblin from the cult film Labyrinth that somehow became unclaimed baggage and wound up at UBC in 1997.
According to Brenda, the store is visited by a million shoppers every year, and only once in its 40+ year history has anyone ever serendipitously purchased one of their own lost items (a pair of ski boots).
Beyond the buying experience you'd get at a thrift store, UBC offers the dark thrill of knowing that the previous owner of whatever you buy never intended for you to have it. "The quality is higher," Brenda said, "because these are things that people wanted." Shopping at UBC requires you to put aside thoughts of human despair that no doubt accompanied the loss of prized outfits, favorite snowboards, cherished jewelry.
We worried that such personal items could carry the aura of a wrathful previous owner -- but Brenda assured us that, as far as she knew, no one had ever returned an item to UBC because it had been possessed or cursed.