The Unclaimed Baggage Center captured my imagination from the first time I read about it, on the internet, around 1998. I never dreamed I would one day find myself in Scottsboro, Alabama, ready to head through the front door.
We already own everything we need (more, in fact), so my interest was not in finding bargains, although I am sure there are there to be found. Instead, I was simply curious – intensely curious. What is this place? How did it come into being? How do they get hold of “unclaimed baggage”, and what do they do with it? Why is it in northern Alabama, rather than an airline hub city?
Thanks to our reader, Dan, we had an “in”. We arrived around 10 am and, after we wandered through the store for 20 minutes or so, stepped up to the customer service desk and asked for Brenda Cantrell, the Director of Marketing. A phone call to the administration building, a short wait for us, and there she was, a vivacious dynamo, ready to answer every question we had plus those we hadn’t formulated yet.
Brenda is a Scottsboro native who grew up with the Unclaimed Baggage Center. Though she never intended to work there – partly because employees are not allowed to buy merchandise until it has been on the retail floor for at least 3 days, and she didn’t want to have to wait that long – she has been employed there for since she graduated from college (12 years, I think she said). She seemed to us to be a perfect fit for the job – funny, knowledgeable and extroverted. She regaled us with stories of Oprah’s visit to the store, and interviews with all the major news outlets and morning news shoes. She is a natural for the job.
No, the Unclaimed Baggage Center isn’t run by the airlines. It was started decades ago when a friend of the founders, who worked for Greyhound, asked them if they wanted to buy, sight unseen, a pickup load of unclaimed baggage that he needed to unload. They did buy it and, upon examining their purchases, saw an opportunity. I don’t remember all the details of “then until now” – truthfully, I was too focused on Brenda’s accent and storytelling skills to remember it all – but the “now” part is fun and impressive.
The UBC, still family owned, is the only place in the US that buys the airline’s unclaimed baggage – which becomes “unclaimed” in one of two ways: it is lost for more than 90 days, and there is no identification inside or out that allows it to be united with its owner, or it is a carry-on left behind by its owner and not reclaimed. The baggage is purchased sight unseen in container loads.
When new baggage arrives, it goes to the sorters. Brenda explained it like this: a sorter sits at an organizing table and opens the bag. Each item is removed and sorted. Small, not valuable items – pens, pencils, pads and stationary, for instance – are bundled together in a clear container to be sold as a batch. Books go into another pile. Jewelry is separated out, and so are cosmetics, perfumes, toiletries. Shoes go into the shoe pile. Clothes are examined and sorted, with items to be donated in one pile, items to be sold in another. (By the way, 40% of the clothing is donated to non-profits for resale.) If clothing that can be resold is stained, it is immediately spot-treated. And the suitcase goes into another pile.
Some of the items can be priced and are ready to go onto the retail floor. Others take a longer path. The UBC runs the largest dry-cleaning operation in Alabama, as all clothing is cleaned or laundered before it is priced and sold. Jewelry is examined, tested and priced. Laptops are reformatted before they are priced and moved to the sales floor. It all was fascinating to hear, and made our return to browsing the retail area all the more interesting.
And the shoes! Presumably, they complemented an outfit packed in the bag. What could it possibly have been?? What goes with fuchsia high-heeled sneakers? “Put on your high-heeled sneakers, ‘cause we’re goin’ out tonight…”
The main store is 40,000 sq. feet, and the warehouse is as large. As you would expect, there are racks and racks and racks of clothing. A jewelry department sells the expensive jewelry and watches that were never reclaimed by their owners. Up a flight of stairs, the electronics department: dozens upon dozens of digital cameras (a great place to buy one, judging from the prices I checked); PDA’s; MP3 players and iPods; cell phones; laptop computers; and cords galore – rechargers, power cords, all kinds of electronic tethers.
And sporting goods! Fishing rods! Backpacks! Portable gyms!
And then I got to the book department. You can imagine how many books are left on planes. All hardbacks are priced at $6, all quality paperbacks at $4 – and Brenda had given us a discount card, 25% off. Whoopee! I came away with 5 hardbacks and 4 paperbacks. Yes, there is something for everyone… and that was before we had walked across the parking lot to the “annex”, home to the linens, kitchenware, tools, cosmetics, art supplies.
It was a fun visit, and I am glad I’ve seen it. My questions were answered, but my imagination was fired up. I know for certain that I will do a better job of identifying my luggage, both inside and out, from now on (Brenda had tips on that, too).
Not far from Scottsboro, Hollywood, Alabama is home to another restaurant on the “100 Foods to Eat in Alabama” list: Mud Creek Fishing Camp Restaurant. It’s another BBQ and catfish joint in the classic mold, and we enjoyed a big lunch before we headed back to Huntsville.
As I post this, Saturday morning at 11 am, thunderstorms are rolling over Huntsville, with a forecast for severe weather – with a chance of tornados - all day long. We closed up Scoopy, unhooked the utilities, loaded our computers and light overnight gear into Jules, and headed down out of the forest to town. Without reliable internet, cell phones, or the weather channel at the park – and deep in a forest of tall trees – we felt too out of touch to relax (especially with the weather radio blaring). Now we’re sitting at a comfortable table in Huntsville’s beautiful public library, both using the library’s high speed WiFi, watching clouds tear along outside. GIVE A CHEER FOR PUBLIC LIBRARIES!
We plan to watch the weather, using the library as our home base. If it still looks scary by nightfall, we’ll check into a hotel, with all the conveniences of modern telecommunications and television!