The best place to shop is other people's lost luggage

SCOTTSBORO, Ala. - The front of the garment was a tangle of purple and pink, lace and ribbon. The back was - well, not much, because it was a sheer thong bodysuit. Like the rest of the lingerie on the rack, it used to belong to somebody else. And like any of the racy numbers hanging in this special secondhand store in northeastern Alabama, there was practically no chance the thong would be reunited with its owner. Now it was on sale at a discount.

About a three-hour drive from the world's busiest airport, Unclaimed Baggage is the only store in the country that buys lost luggage from transportation companies and sells it back to the public at a discount. The store works with airlines as well as bus, train, truck and hospitality companies, collecting wayward passenger belongings and unclaimed cargo.

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Roughly a third of what workers find is recycled or tossed. A third gets donated to charity, and a third is put up for sale online and at their 50,000-square-foot store in Scottsboro.

Since the business started in 1970, it's become a top tourist attraction in Alabama, claiming more than a million visitors a year. Today the store has its own merch, a coffee shop and even a museum where it displays some of the weirdest items ever discovered, such as a Jim Henson puppet from the movie "Labyrinth."

Unclaimed Baggage isn't the only thrifting destination in town. There are pawnshops, a Goodwill and a slew of antique stores with folksy names like Back Porch Pickin, He Sells She Sells and Patches Merchant Emporium.

But it is by far the biggest.


Cheap ski equipment, Rolex watches

"Golly there's so many!"

A blond man stared out in disbelief at the sea of racks before him. There was missing stuff as far as the eye could see: laptops, fedoras, designer bags, tuxedos worthy of the Oscars, hunting rifles, underwear (new pairs only, found with tags or in packaging). According to its tag, a Wilson tennis racket was valued at $300 but selling for $77.99. A $575 Tumi garment bag was going for $399.99. There were $34 e-readers for $7.99.

If it's ever been packed in a suitcase, a staff member told me, it's probably been sold here. At a markdown.

I came for the store's big annual ski sale, so in addition to the usual stock there were aisles and aisles of snow gear - from silky soft Arc'teryx jackets to waterproof overalls - plus skis, snowboards, helmets and boots.

Austin Snider, 29, drove 100 miles from Birmingham, Ala., to be among the first 50 people in line who get 30 minutes of early access to the sale, among other perks. Nabbing one of those spots requires camping in the strip mall parking lot overnight. Rumor had it that people came from as far as Canada and North Dakota to camp this year.

Snider's best score was a limited-edition Burton snowboard that's "almost two grand to preorder it," he told me. "I think I paid $300 here."

His dad, Jeff Kidwell, 50, lives in the nearby town of Ider, Ala., and has been shopping at Unclaimed Baggage for nearly two decades. He's had similar luck at the sale, even finding his own limited-edition Burton aluminum core snowboard, complete with bindings, that retailed new for about $1,700. "I got the whole thing for $200," Kidwell said.

The store has a team of experts that authenticate jewelry and luxury items, or dispose of counterfeits. The most expensive item ever sold was a platinum Rolex that was appraised for $64,000 and sold for $32,000 in 2014.

An employee told me they get a lot of watch guys who regularly come in hunting for unique finds. Sometimes, they're not even listed for much of a discount. On the day of my visit, a hot pink Hermès Birkin bag sat behind a glass case for $17,000 - a comparable price to others online. But even buying something at full price at Unclaimed Baggage can be a win if it means skipping competitive wait lists for ultra-premium brands.

Some luxury goods shoppers, like Michele Fowlkes, 52, and her son Maurice Tucker, 23, who came from nearby Huntsville, say finding rare items is another benefit.

"Some stuff is unique and maybe you can't find it anywhere else," Fowlkes said. "This is it."


How missing stuff gets claimed

The deals can be undeniable, but what about the ethics? As you walk the rows of strangers' belongings, some make you feel guiltier than others. Like precious little toddler outfits or jewelry that may have been family heirlooms. It's no "baby shoes for sale, never worn," but "discount wedding dress from a lost suitcase" has a heartbreaking ring to it.

This is not the way Unclaimed Baggage sees it.

"The airlines do a great job" at reuniting most lost bags, said Bryan Owens, the store's second-generation owner and CEO.

"About 98 percent of mishandled bags are reunited in the first day or so," Owens continued. And over the next 90 days, most of the remaining 2 percent are also sorted. What ends up in Alabama is "just a fraction of a percent," he said.

But with 470 million pieces of luggage checked on domestic flights alone in 2022, a fraction of a percent still adds up to hundreds of thousands of orphaned bags.

The most common issue: The bag had no tag. Sonni Hood, 26, a PR manager for Unclaimed Baggage, now tells everyone she knows to put their contact information both on the inside and outside of their luggage.

Once the airline has made extensive attempts to reunite the bag with its owner - and paid out customers for their loss - the bags end up in the Unclaimed Baggage processing facility where they're disassembled for sale like a luggage chop shop.

It's not all Gucci and iPhones. After Owens bought the company from his parents and brother in 1995, he came across a large, shockproof commercial shipping container. Inside was a device unfamiliar to Owens. It was suspended with rubber grommets "and it had a placard on top of it that said, 'Handle with extreme caution, I'm worth my weight in gold,'" Owens said. "It was a guidance system for a fighter plane."


The wildest finds

The company washes and dry cleans up to 70,000 items every month, making it the largest commercial laundry operation in the state of Alabama. But once upon a time when the business was much smaller, the laundry was done in a building across the street. Alan Garner, a Scottsboro local who grew up in town, told me his grandmother, Vera, worked there for about three years.

"She had a few stories," said Garner, 56.

Like the times (plural) Vera discovered human remains, or when she was cleaning a pair of shoes and a heel came undone. To her surprise, "there were drugs inside," Garner said. (Owens says because of such finds the company has a relationship with local law enforcement.)

Over the years, Garner has remained a loyal regular. Some people have their neighborhood bar where everybody knows their name, "for me, it's coming to Unclaimed Baggage," he said.

Garner lives about a mile away and swings by after work a few times a week. Some 75 percent of the clothes in his wardrobe is from the store. That number would be higher, he says, if he could find the brand of pants he likes (7 Diamonds), but he has yet to find a pair in his size. He's bought old Bibles that date back to the early 20th century, fancy pens from brands like Montblanc and even his son's first baseball glove.

But his greatest purchase by far was one he didn't keep.

"I found a fly-fishing reel that was $700, and I bought it for under $5," Garner said, "But when I brought it home . . . there was a man's name on it, a unique name."

Garner tracked the man down. It turned out, the owner lived in New York and went fishing in Montana each year. Tragically that spring, his wife had died, and he was going to skip the trip until a buddy convinced him otherwise. His prized reel went missing en route. The fisherman assumed it was gone forever until Garner called.

"I was able to get it back to him," Garner said. "About two months later, I had a package in the mail. . . . He had sent me a couple of old lures and invited me to come to New York to fish with him some time."


An overwhelming shopping experience

When you visit Unclaimed Baggage yourself, you're given a choice: What kind of shopper will you be?

There are the amblers who rove the store patiently like great whites stalking prey. Then there are the middlemen glued to their phones, wheeling and dealing for distant buyers. Perhaps you're more like the scramblers who thrash their way through racks desperate to find the best stuff the fastest.

Most of the shoppers at the ski sale seemed to be repeat customers. Like Doug Ferdinand, 58, who drove from the Atlanta area in his Winnebago to camp overnight with his wife and their longhaired dachshund. They've been shopping at Unclaimed Baggage for about five years and were on the lookout for snow pants and jewelry.

"It used to be a better deal," Ferdinand said.

It was a common refrain I'd hear all day. While Snider was happy with the prices on sporting goods, he called name-brand clothing costs "exorbitant" compared to past years.

Customers can blame Google. Owens said the democratization of information on the internet has changed their pricing a lot.

"It's pretty easy to find the value of most things," he said. "Our goal is to price it so it's a real value to people . . . but at the same time, we're not in the business to sell it to people who are reselling."

Terrace Revies, 48, who also came from Atlanta for the sale, told me the best way to approach a shopping day at the store was to pace yourself.

"Don't get overwhelmed," he said. Even if you see something you like, sit on it while you take in the rest of the roughly 7,000 items on the showroom floor.

"Take your time because they're always bringing out new stuff," he continued. "I make it a day out of it - I might go eat lunch, come back."

After several hours weaving through the aisles, I needed that advice. I was spiraling: Was I letting opportunity slip through my unprepared fingers? Why didn't I check my ski boot size before I left home? Can I fit a sleeping bag in my suitcase?

I gave up trying to do Unclaimed Baggage the right way. Instead of scouring for designer deals, I restocked everyday essentials I misplace most often: an umbrella ($3.99), a balaclava ($4.99), a pair of sunglasses ($5), faux leather gloves for myself ($2.99) and real ones for my fiancé ($7.99). I did grab a Lululemon sports bra for $22, but I left the strappy thong on the rack.


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Video: Unclaimed Baggage is the only store in the country that buys lost luggage and sells it back to the public at a discount. It's about a three-hour drive from the world's busiest airport, and has become a major tourist attraction in Alabama since it opened in the 70s. From $30,000 watches to an unfathomable amount of underwear, check out all the things you can buy at this megastore.(REF:elkerj/The Washington Post)

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