Photos: Unclaimed Baggage

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    Unclaimed Baggage Center is a retail store located in Scottsboro, Ala. The store, which started about 40 years ago, purchases unclaimed bags and cargo and resells the items. The airlines make every effort to return luggage and most bags that end up in Scottsboro have no identification and no clues of the owner. The bags don't arrive at the center until three to four months after the travel date. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Shoe shopping

    Lucas and Stewart Devries, from Scottsboro, Ala., stopped by UBC to make a video for their church group but couldn't help checking out what new sneakers had come in. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Weighing his options

    Terry Meadows shops for a portable DVD player. UBC adds 7,000 items to its shelves each day, and over 1 million customers visit the 50,000-square-foot store each year. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Time for lunch

    Moving clockwise, Christy Hoekenschnieder, 54 (back to camera), Mary Jean Moody, 22, Blair Hoekenschneider, 25, and Raily Parker, 27 (with her newborn daughter Mary Parker), take a lunch break at UBC. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Turning a profit

    "I grew up shopping here," said event planner Miles Lyndsey, who drove three hours from Atlanta to look for a wedding dress for one of her clients. "Some of the same people still work here, only their prices have changed," she said. Lyndsey checks eBay on her iPhone for the price of a bag she found in the store. It's not a great deal this time, but she recently found a pair of Chanel shoes for $30 that she later sold online for $400. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Wearing white

    A bride-to-be could find an outfit for her big day at UBC, such as this St. Tropez wedding dress selling for $140 ... (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Choo shoes

    ... These Jimmy Choo high-heeled shoes, selling for just over $100 ... (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Unclaimed bling

    ... And this 18-karat gold ring with a diamond ($15,000.99), offered in a set with a gold and diamond pendant ($12,500.99) on a 14-karat gold necklace ($528.99). (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Cover me!

    Pat West, 66, and Bonnie Seaburn, 68, browse for a cell phone case. UBC "purchases unclaimed baggage and cargo by the truckload," according to the store's website. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Looking for a good read

    Jerry Herly from Hollywood, Ala., shops around for books. UBC stocks "more than 7,000 new and pre-owned items daily," according to its website, "stocked in easy-to-prowl departments." (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. After-school hangout

    "We come here like every day. There's not much to do in Scottsboro, so we come here if we're not at McDonald's," said high schooler Colin Lott, who tries on a green jacket while his friend Tyler Winiger takes pictures of him for Facebook. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The right stuff

    Brenda Cantrell, the director of marketing at UBC, shows off one of the more unusual items found at the store -- a stuffed Canada goose. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Staying put

    No, the goose isn't for sale. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Return shopper

    Linda Mckee from Huntsville, Ala., shops at UBC once a month. This trip, she found a cell phone charger for $2.06 -- the charger would have cost $30 at a cell phone store. McKee also ended up buying a jacket and pants, among other things. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Cold-weather gear

    A customer browses UBC's collection of winter coats. The store was founded in 1970 by Doyle and Sue Owens as a part-time business, but "soon became a full-time venture," the store's website says. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Feel the beat

    Often left behind on planes, iPods are abundant at UBC. Prices differ depending on models. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Stars and stripes

    American-flag underpants will set a patriotic UBC customer back about 99 cents. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Magic moment

    It's not just clothes, electronics and books for sale at Unclaimed Baggage Center -- there's sports memorabilia, too. This jersey, autographed by Magic Johnson, sells for $225.99. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. All aboard!

    Not everything at UBC is up for grabs. A few items not for sale include this New York City conductor hat ... (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Sharp edge

    ... This handmade dagger ... (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Bullwinkle's nightmare

    ... And these giant moose antlers. Unclaimed Baggage Center is located in Scottsboro, Ala., and is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m., and is closed Sundays. (Chris Maluszynski / MOMENT for msnbc.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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By AP Airlines Writer
updated 4/14/2011 1:19:12 PM ET 2011-04-14T17:19:12

Welcome to the final resting place for lost luggage.

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Along a country road 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 available 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.

"You never know what you may find," says Clayton Grider, a Scottsboro youth minister who often starts his day at the store. "It is a sport."

More than 2 million of the roughly 700 million suitcases checked on U.S. airlines last year didn't arrive with their owners. The vast 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.

Slideshow: Unclaimed baggage's final stop (on this page)

Shoppers seem to have no qualms about buying what was once a child's favorite stuffed animal or a wedding dress that didn't get to the church on time.

"I feel sorry for the guy who lost it," says Chuck Trykoski, who bought a digital camera for $21. "I mean, I've lost stuff on the airlines, too."

'Snapshot of popular culture'
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 at the goods. Others, like Trykoski, who was driving home to Illinois after a Florida vacation, 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. Just don't come here expecting to find your lost luggage. Only a third of the items received make it to the racks. The rest are donated to charity or trashed. The store hopes to offer a small sliver of its ever-changing inventory online by the end of this year.

This city of 15,000 in the northeast corner of Alabama is perhaps best known for a 1930s trial where nine young black men were accused of raping two white women. The Supreme Court twice threw out convictions saying the men weren't given a proper defense and appeared before all-white juries. How did it become the end of the line for lost suitcases?

Unclaimed Baggage was started in 1970 by Doyle Owens, a part-time insurance salesman in Scottsboro who had a friend working at a bus line in Washington. One day the friend asked if he wanted to buy lost luggage from buses. Four years later, airline luggage was added. Since then, the store has expanded to car rental companies, commuter trains and is eyeing cruises.

The airlines don't like to discuss how their customers' belongings end up here. American, Delta and United refused interviews. US Airways, JetBlue and AirTran acknowledged they sell items in bulk — sight unseen — to the store but wouldn't say how much they are paid, citing confidentiality clauses in their contracts.

"It's not something that we make money off," says Bill Race, who oversees luggage for JetBlue. "It's probably less than what you paid for lunch."

New York's Metro-North Railroad is paid $25 for each suitcase-size box of lost property. Big-ticket goods such as electronics or jewelry are sold for 30 percent of their value. Last year, Unclaimed Baggage paid Metro-North about $38,000 for about 5,000 items.

Other airlines — Alaska, Frontier, Hawaiian, Southwest, Spirit and Virgin America — donate luggage to charities such as the Salvation Army.

850,000 unclaimed bags a year
Worldwide, almost 2.5 billion bags are checked each year, and 850,000 are never seen again by their owner, says Nick Gates, who oversees baggage products for SITA, an aviation technology provider. In the U.S., those passengers are paid up to $3,300 by the airlines. Most claims are smaller. Airlines don't consider how much it costs to replace a passenger's wares, but how much they'd be worth used.

Story: Rule would force airlines to repay fee after losing bag

Airlines vary in their records for losing bags. Southwest says one of every 67,000 bags checked is never reunited with its owner. Delta loses bags 13 times as often. Since the introduction of baggage fees, they're all doing better. The rate at which bags are delayed or mishandled is now half what it was in 2007. Experts say the fees — airlines collect more than $3.3 billion a year — deter passengers from checking bags, easing strains on the system.

Still, some suitcases remain a mystery. The bags lack identification tags, which can be ripped off during conveyer belt jams. Airlines inventory the luggage and use a database to match the contents with owners' descriptions. Investigators also look for other clues.

6 ways to reduce your chances
of losing luggage

"They don surgical gloves and then do an autopsy of the bags," says Jan Fogelberg, Frontier's vice president of customer experience.

Sometimes, it's as simple as a name on a prescription bottle. Other times, they track owners through store receipts left in pockets.

JetBlue once reunited two newlyweds with their bag after finding a photo inside of their wedding cake. The couple's first names were inscribed on the icing. In the background were palm trees and a pool. The airline guessed the couple had a destination wedding in Florida and matched the names on the cake with flight manifests.

Bags that reach the Alabama store are opened and the contents are prepared for sale. Laptop and iPod memories are wiped clean and 40,000 pieces of clothing are laundered each month.

Then the wet suits, rifles, coats, diamond earring and dresses are put out for shoppers.

While the store might be an addiction for some bargain-hunters, others come just for the kitsch factor. After rummaging through the shelves, Auburn University students Ryan Little and Jordan Haden walked out with a Will Smith CD, a Destiny's Child greatest-hits album and a Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen hair dryer. The total cost: $13.76.

"It's a last chance," Little says, "for somebody to make a profit off impulse buys and bad Christmas presents."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Lost luggage to result in refund?

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