SCOTTSBORO, Ala. — Luggage is never really lost, it's just misplaced.
So where is it? There's a good chance it's on a store shelf in northern Alabama, where the country's largest lost-baggage retailer sells everything from diamond-studded cuff links and pearls to boxer shorts and half-used cans of shaving cream.
The Unclaimed Baggage Center, which covers a city block, has an agreement with a number of U.S airlines to resell unclaimed luggage and its contents for half the original value.
Need a 41-carat emerald? Owner Bryan Owens will sell it to you for just $29,500--half the appraised value, he says. A Ralph Lauren cashmere sports coat? $100. A red and yellow boogie board? A bargain at $8. How about a Palm Pilot for $125?
"I come here pretty much every week," said Sherrie Rhoades of Huntsville, about 40 miles from Scottsboro. "Today I needed a nice hat for a funeral this weekend, and I found two."
Rhoades paid $5 for her two sun hats, a common find in a store that sells shirts for $2, jockey shorts for $1 and shampoo for 50 cents a bottle.
Clothing is cleaned and pressed before it is sold, said Owens, who adds thousands of items to his shelves daily. The supply comes not only from unclaimed passenger bags, but unclaimed air freight and items left at airports or on airplanes.
"It's a little bit like Christmas every day--we get these bags that come in and we never know what we'll find," said Owens, who sports a gold Cartier watch reclaimed from a lost suitcase.
Rare finds, such as a leather Stetson hat signed "To Brent from Muhammad Ali 9/2/88," are part of the company's tiny museum, which includes a 1770 violin and a puppet from a Jim Henson movie.
The store was founded 30 years ago by Owens' father Doyle in Scottsboro, a small manufacturing city near the Tennessee border.
As the story goes, Owens borrowed a pickup truck and $300 to buy lost luggage from the Greyhound bus company and then dumped the mishmash of button-down shirts and electric razors on a fold-out table.
The business has since grown to a 50,000-square-foot store with more than 110 workers and a cafe selling Starbucks coffee. Customers can shop six days a week or browse for merchandise at any time on the store's Internet site: www.unclaimedbaggage.com.
Owens has a written agreement with airlines to not disclose from whom he buys merchandise or for how much. He can't even say how much money he makes annually.
However, he does say he has no competition.
Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Kristin Nelson said the airline does sell its unclaimed bags, but is contractually obligated to keep the name of the business confidential.
She said Southwest, as with most airlines, conducts an exhaustive search to reunite passengers with their luggage. Southwest keeps luggage for four months before selling it.
Luggage is typically lost because its identification tag gets ripped off and there is nothing inside the bag to link it to a passenger, Nelson said. Sometimes the unmarked luggage goes to the wrong airport, compounding the problem.
It is impossible to determine how many pieces of luggage go missing, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. But during a nine-month period last year, 2 million travelers who flew on the 10 largest airlines reported lost or mishandled bags. Of those, 98% was eventually returned to owners.
Still, that 2% has made a nice business for the Owens family. More than 800,000 customers come through the doors of Unclaimed Baggage annually, he says.
The company doesn't promote itself, relying instead on word-of-mouth and free listings in tourists' guides to attract customers.
The approach seems to be working. On a recent weekday afternoon, the store's parking lot was filled with cars from Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Rhode Island and Florida.
Shoppers browsing through racks of clothing, which makes up 60% of the store's merchandise, expressed no guilt in taking advantage of travelers' misfortune.
"I truly don't care. I know they're being reimbursed," said Judy Rodgers of Scottsboro. "It's like looking for treasure. You never know what you'll find."
On the Net: The Unclaimed Baggage Center: http://www.unclaimedbaggage.com