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Now arriving in Alabama: Your lost luggage

Welcome to the final resting place for lost luggage.

Along a country road in Scottsboro, Ala., next to a muffler shop and a cemetery is a 40,000-square-foot store filled with all the items that never made it home from vacation. Shoes, samurai swords, iPods, even lingerie, all for 20 to 80 percent off.

When airlines can't determine who owns a bag, they sell it for a few bucks to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, a warehouse-sized facility that would put your local PTA garage sale to shame. Past an entranceway of world clocks and columns decorated with foreign currency, one traveler's misfortune turns into a bargain-hunter's paradise.

More than 2 million of the roughly 700 million suitcases checked on U.S. airlines last year didn't arrive with their owners. The majority were returned within 24 hours, typically on the next flight. But 68,000 never made it. After 90 days unsuccessfully trying to reunite passenger and parcel, most airlines sell the bags here.

Each day, the store sets out 7,000 new items, including sweaters, jeans, golf clubs, books and noise-canceling headphones. And it's not just luggage. Plenty of belongings are left in seatback pockets. "It's kind of an archaeological snapshot of popular culture," says Bryan Owens, son of the store's founder and its owner since 1995.

Regulars line up each morning to get first crack. Others stop out of curiosity. Local and regional church groups come by the busload. Most people hear about the store through media reports and ads in the state's vacation guide. It's "an adventure" for the 830,000 shoppers a year, says Owens, who wears a Tag Heuer watch once found in a suitcase.

There have been some surprising discoveries over the years, including moose antlers, a parachute, a medieval suit of armor, even a shrunken head. Only a third of the items received make it to the racks. The rest are donated or trashed. The store hopes to offer a small sliver of its ever-changing inventory online by the end of this year.

Now arriving in Alabama: Your lost luggage 04/14/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 14, 2011 9:41pm]

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