Special Collections June 2002

The Land of Lost Luggage

If an airline has ever lost your luggage, you know that even after your claim has been settled and the matter closed (at least as far as the airline is concerned), you can't help wondering, Where did my bag go? Cedar Rapids? Ulan Bator? Alpha Centauri?

Actually, chances are pretty good it went to Scottsboro, Alabama. Every year thousands and thousands of wayward suitcases end up in Scottsboro—specifically, at the Unclaimed Baggage Center. Once an airline has tried and failed to reunite suitcase and owner (a process that varies according to airline), it will compensate the owner and sell the suitcase—and all its contents—to the UBC, which buys suitcases by the truckload and hauls them to its 50,000-square-foot complex in Scottsboro. There the UBC staff sorts through the bags and puts their contents in a showroom (or some of them: others are given to charity, still others discarded), where they can be seen and bought by members of the public. But are people really interested in buying other people's, uh, lost stuff? "We'll have close to a million people come to the store this year," says Bryan Owens, the owner of the UBC, "from every state in America and thirty foreign countries. This is kind of the Mecca for lost bags."

Owens's father started the UBC in 1970, with a rented old house, a borrowed old truck, and a $300 loan. Today the center gets nearly 7,000 new items every day, and Owens says that people can't seem to get enough. "It's a treasure hunt," he says. "Every day is like Christmas here—we never know what we're going to find. Just last week we found a twenty-eight-thousand-dollar tennis bracelet and a one-point-six-karat diamond ring. We've had a medicine-man stick adorned with a shrunken head, and a Nikon camera that was in the Space Shuttle. Back in the eighties we got a well-traveled Gucci suitcase that was packed with artifacts that dated back to 1500 B.C. And once we found a guidance system for an F-16 fighter jet, in a shockproof case from the Department of the U.S. Navy. It was labeled 'Handle With Extreme Caution—I Am Worth My Weight in Gold.'" The UBC sent that one back.

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Richard Rubin is the author of The Last of the Doughboys and Confederacy of Silence. He has written for The New York Times.

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