In the Land of Lost and Found

In the Land of Lost and Found

A Journey Told in Unclaimed Baggage

Words by Alli Patton 

Illustration by Dasha Lebedev

Around and around. A mechanical whir is all I hear as a cold, shuddering beast snakes beneath me, urging me forward as I go. Around and around. With each tremoring turn, a new set of tired eyes comes into view, scanning and scrutinizing this humdrum parade. 

To my right, a comrade is detained and discharged. To my left, another companion is yanked upright and then gone. One by one, they’re all lifted with a grunt and dragged away in a hollow, plastic roar. All but me. I am left to ride this conveyor belt alone.

Misdirected somewhere between Dulles and Dallas, I am lost, joining the small percentage of luggage that goes unclaimed during air travel every year. 

Over the course of several months, the airline will do everything in its power to reunite me with my owner. Those efforts, however, sometimes fail. In that instance, my person will be compensated and I will be officially orphaned. It may sound like a bitter end, but it’s actually far from over for me and my contents. You see, a new life begins on this carousel. 

Through the winding hills of northeast Alabama, past the dazzling expanse of Guntersville Lake, rests the sleepy little town of Scottsboro. For items adrift from Point A to B, all roads surprisingly lead to here, to a stretch of West Willow Street where a vast land of the lost and found lays waiting to be explored. 

Unclaimed Baggage is the country’s only lost luggage retailer. Since its inception in 1970—thanks to the entrepreneurial efforts of Alabama native Doyle Owens—the business has had a singular mission: to give unclaimed items a second chance. 

The small family-owned company has spent decades purchasing abandoned bags and repurposing their contents accordingly. They either resell the things inside at a discounted rate or donate them to those in need, and recycle what can’t be reused, the spoils of all their rifling ending up inside a massive storefront. Taking up an entire city block near downtown Scottsboro, the building is a trove of misplaced treasures. From the practical to the luxurious to the downright unusual, if it was once packed in a suitcase—clothes, jewelry, electronics, sporting goods, intricate African masks—it can be found on the racks, on the shelves, or in the bins of Unclaimed Baggage.

Weaving through the store, some of the offerings feel so personal, it’s aching to think about how they came to be there—a well-loved pair of boots, a child’s toy, a knotted wedding band, a pendant necklace brandishing someone’s name in a flowing script. Others feel intentional—the like-new snow pants from a first (and last) skiing endeavor, the porcelain doll with the wandering eyes, the self-help book that came so highly recommended. 

And several items require a double take. With each step through the winding warehouse, a new question comes to mind. Why is there a full box of cucumber-melon urinal screens or a set of car headlights? Why do so many refrigerator water filters get lost in transit? Where are all of these shower curtains coming from? However, with more than five decades of experience scouring strangers’ belongings, to the folks at Unclaimed Baggage, those oddities don’t even touch the most outlandish.

Some of the most miraculous, awestriking, dumbfounding objects have made their way through company hands, such as the ancient Egyptian artifacts excavated from a Gucci suitcase, the live rattlesnake curled in a duffle bag, or the bear hide packed in salt. There is a small museum within the store dedicated to the extraordinary things that have come through the business over the years. A full medieval suit of armor, a shrunken head, and even the goblin Hoggle, a four-foot-tall puppet from the classic 1986 film Labyrinth, all peer from behind glass while shoppers hunt for deals or perhaps their long-lost rattlesnake. 

Just like the things inside its walls, Unclaimed Baggage is no doubt one of a kind. But it is also more than a place to simply find a bargain or snoop through the things that others have misplaced. 

A deeper narrative exists within the store, one that can be found wedged on a shelf, sandwiched on a rack, or buried in a bin. If you look hard enough, all of the store’s items become so much more, each one of them with a story still to tell. That well-loved pair of boots will get the chance to walk another mile. That child’s toy will summon another gummy smile. An Emily will find her name etched on a necklace and feel it was made for her. At Unclaimed Baggage, lost things don’t stay that way for long.