Travel Treasures Lost, Found

Travel Treasures Lost, Found

June 1st, 2013 Story and photography by Meghan Pittman, Mary Beth Torgerson & Kelsie Bowman in Local Regional News

If you've ever wondered where your precious lost luggage from vacations past landed instead of with you at your arrival airport, you might want to check in the little town of Scottsboro, Alabama, about an hour southwest of Chattanooga. There, just off of the main drag of the sleepy southern town, Unclaimed Baggage Center stands like a great planet pulling all the loose luggage from the universe and sorting it perfectly into easy-to-shop rows. Of course, when Doyle Owens started the business 43 years ago, it operated out of the spare room of a rental house. He only sold items two days a week. But in 1996, his son Bryan bought the business and kicked off a major redesign, including moving the business into a huge warehouse, expanding its merchandise and even opening Alabama's second Starbucks inside.

Meghan Pittman, Mary Beth Torgerson & Kelsie Bowman

How it works:

Frequent flyers may lament late luggage and we've all heard tales of luggage long gone, but of domestic flyers each year, 99.5 percent fly without incident. Of even that .5 percent of luggage lost, 95 percent is eventually reunited with its rightful owners less than five days later.

Three months pass as the airlines do their best to try and reunite those remaining bags with their owners, but after that point, that luggage is picked up by Unclaimed Baggage Center's very own truck driver.

The center doesn't put everything it finds in lost luggage up for sale. Some of it isn't fit to sell, so it's tossed. Of what remains, everything is cleaned-and then half of the items are donated. Lost eyeglasses are given to those who can't see, and shoes are donated to groups all over.

The remaining items, some 35 percent of what is left, are cleaned, priced at 20 to 80 percent below retail and put out on the 40,000-square-foot floor of the Unclaimed Baggage Center.

What attracted people to coming to the small town of Scottsboro for someone else's treasures? Spokeswoman Brenda Cantrell attributes the success to Oprah featuring the unclaimed finds on her popular talkshow multiple times. "It really took off after that. We became a huge tourist destination in Alabama," she says. "People come here looking for their lost items, but likely they find something else instead."

That mentality of searching for something lost, or maybe something from worlds away at a discounted price, has amassed more than a million visitors to the center each year. The store has electronics, art and décor, books, sporting goods, women's, men's, children's and even formal clothing, shoes and purses, jewelry-basically anything you'd normally find in a big department store.

But it's different.

"We put out 7,000 new items a day, so you never know what you're going to get," Cantrell says. "We have people come in here and look at something for weeks before buying it, and then suddenly, it's gone. If it's meant to be, it's meant to be, but you better get it before someone else does."

Unlike any other retail experience in America, we had to give it a shot ourselves since we're so close to this treasure trove.

Armed with $100 each, Chatter's resident shoppers, assistant editor Mary Beth Torgerson and writers Kelsie Bowman and Meghan Pittman, set out to see what all of the fuss is about.

Mary Beth's Shopping Bag

Mary Beth's UBC Scorecard:

Kate Spade 12K gold plated and

enamel bangle (New with tags)

UBC Price: $7.29 Retail Price: $32

Ann Taylor Sunset necklace

(New with tags)

UBC Price: $18.59 Retail Price: $88

Asos short-sleeved sweatshirt

(New with tags)

UBC Price: $12.59 Retail Price: $30

Asos plaid shift dress

(New with tags)

UBC Price: $15.59 Retail Price: $50

Dahlia navy dress

UBC Price: $20.99 Retail price: $120

Massimo Dutti grey wool blazer

UBC Price: $10.59 Retail price: $182

Laundry by Shelli Segal blazer

UBC Price: $2.65 Retail price: $80

Alexis caftan dress

(New with tags)

UBC Price: $15.59 Retail price: $308

Total UBC Price: $103.88 (before tax)

Total Retail Value: $888

Now that my husband and I are officially moving out of our shoebox apartment in North Chattanooga into a house in historic St. Elmo, we're on a mission to expand our limited bric-a-brac collection to fill our new space. Unclaimed Baggage Center seemed like a great answer to our budget home furnishing dilemma, so during our trip to the sprawling store, I made a beeline for the mezzanine to check out the artwork.

I sifted through the racks and, much to my chagrin, found little more than a massive collection of cowboy-themed artwork (not really our taste), unoriginal prints from museums (Georgia O'Keefe anyone?) and movie posters of Edward from Twilight. In other words, it was a bummer.

This wasn't my first time at the rodeo, though, so I knew that the UBC, Etc. building across the street might be my saving grace. In the past when I had visited UBC, that building held stacks of linens, furniture, art, knick-knacks and everything in between (hence the name). Unfortunately, this time it seemed barren in the houseware department, but I guess if I had needed toiletries or key chains, I would have been solid. Again, bummer.

Thankfully, though, where UBC failed me in the home department, it won me over with its vast and unbelievably priced clothing selection. Maybe my house won't be decorated with UBC finds, but on my upcoming spa/beach vacation to celebrate and relax from all the pressures of moving into a new home, I'll be decked out in some really great clothing (most of which was new with tags) that cost a fraction of the retail price. Now I can only hope that I don't lose my luggage along the way-but if I do, I definitely know where to go looking for it.

Meghan's Story Spree

Meghan's UBC Scorecard:

River Island Pink cut out

jewel neck dress, (new with tags)

UBC price: $35.99, Retail price: $92.14

BCBG MAXAZRIA Diana

Zip Around Wallet

UBC price: $41.99, Retail: $108.99

Kate Spade 12K gold "Heart of Gold"

idiom bangles (new with tags)

UBC price: $7.29, Retail: $32.00

Straw fedora

UBC price: $4.29, Retail (based on Target): $12.99

Total UBC Price: $96.85

Total Retail Value: $277.16

After hearing a jaw-dropping tale of a 41-carat emerald tucked away in someone's checked luggage-after which all professionalism went out the window and I embarrassingly gawked "shut up!"-I was eager to hit the jewelry case in hopes of lusting over lost trinkets.

What I found behind glass cases wasn't quite the giant emerald of my dreams, but three handmade pieces of Indian jewelry: hand-crafted silver, hand-cut diamonds and red ruby beads-all with $4,000 or more price tags, sitting between gold chains and bracelets. What stuck with me the most was hearing that a visitor to the center a few weeks ago was able to share knowledge of the pieces to employees behind the counter.

As I rifled through lost items, I thought about the unknown stories of their owners. Luggage of wronged vacationers, forlorn businessmen and wistful travelers has been busted open, separated and is now on display for my purchasing pleasure. Walking through departments and identifying corresponding pieces made for a storyteller's dream.

Who carried the 41-carat emerald from a pirate's treasure chest in some exotic locale to their home? Who found joy in the unique Indian jewelry pieces? Are they any different from the person who packed dozens of plastic platform stripper heels or orthopedic gold-lamé shoes? Like Cantrell said to me earlier, "If these bags could talk, the stories they'd tell. You just can't be surprised at what you find."

At one point, I picked up a pink dress with a mod-esque look. I turned to Kelsie and immediately joked that the dress was a covet-piece, something you'd normally never wear, but purchased to own because it speaks to the indulgent side of you. It was bubble-gum pink with a slightly flared 60s silhouette, with pastel and gold beads accenting a cutout neckline. Tags still on and unworn. It was something I'd never seen before and would probably never buy for myself.

I passed it again when my hands were full with items later in the afternoon. I grabbed it, thinking it'd be fun to at least try on in the spirit of buying other's treasures.

It fit perfectly; though a little ridiculous for my plain taste, it was $35 and perfect for an upcoming Kentucky Derby party.

Kelsie's Unclaimed Finds

Kelsie's UBC Scorecard:

iPod Nano 4th generation 8 GB

UBC Price: $55 Retail Price: $150

Dragonfly Yoga pro performance mat

UBC Price: $15 Retail Price: $85

Gold Monet bracelet

UBC Price: $8; Retail Price: $36

Gold Kate Spade bangle

UBC Price: $7; Retail Price: $32

Fabiana Filippi tank

UBC Price: $5; Retail Price: $180

Total UBC Price: $90

Total Retail Value: $483

Shopping the racks at Unclaimed Baggage Center is a lot like shopping at any other thrift store-with one huge difference: the merchandise wasn't willingly given up. As a result, I walked away with a $5 tunic that likely originally retailed for $200.

While I could have searched for hidden treasure in the Unclaimed clothing section for hours, I actually had my heart set on finding a new-or new to me-iPod Nano to accompany me on my fitness kicks to the gym. I figured these must be pretty hot items, so a wide selection was not expected.

I was wrong. I realized this after the salesman slapped a few baskets full of iPods on the counter. Fourth, fifth, sixth generations all piled in heaps of red, green, orange, blue and pink. A steel-grey seventh generation iPod Nano even sat on its own stand behind the glass, though a bit out of my price range at around $130. I settled on a grey fourth generation Nano for $55.

Tempted as I was to explore the stacks of e-readers across the aisle and settle for only two Unclaimed souvenirs, I moved on from the electronics section and snagged a Dragonfly Pro Performance Yoga Mat still in its packaging (I wasn't joking about those fitness kicks).

I'll be honest, like any other female who has been handed cash for the sole purpose of spending it, I whiled away a ridiculous number of hours in the shoe section, not to mention the purse, jewelry and clothing section. Since thousands of new items are supposed to hit the shelves each day, I kept imagining that even the display mannequins were changing clothes, though Mary Beth and Meghan insisted they weren't.

In the end, I added a Kate Spade bangle and a Monet bracelet to my loot, as well as a pool toy for my 11-month-old niece, Avery.

Even after spending seven hours in Unclaimed Baggage-yep, seven hours-I could have shopped longer. I'll definitely be returning-there were some digital SLR cameras I have my eye on-and I will be bringing friends.

I think a trip every week should suffice.