Some of Brenda Cantrell’s favorite stories from working at the Unclaimed Baggage Center, a 40,000 square foot warehouse in Scottsboro, Ala., that sells lost treasures abandoned by—or never reunited with—airline passengers, are the items that didn’t make it onto the sales floor. Like a shrunken head.
“It was in this old worn-out suitcase with a bunch of Egyptian artifacts and a mummified falcon,” she remembers. “How do you sell a shrunken head? That’s not really something you can put a price tag on.”
And then there was the time the store’s handlers opened a box and discovered a live, hungry, and very angry rattlesnake. “We don’t know how the snake got in there,” she says. “We’ll never know if someone meant to put it there, or if it somehow found its way in during the transportation process. It’s like the wedding dresses we find occasionally. We can only guess at the back story. Was the dress on its way to a wedding or coming back from a wedding?” They released the snake in the cemetery behind the store. “That’s not something you put up for sale,” she laughs. “Although at this place, it’d probably have a few takers.”
Business has been good at the Unclaimed Baggage Center. According to a recent Air Transport Industry Baggage Report, 25 million pieces of luggage were lost just last year, or approximately 70,684 bags every day. If those bags aren’t claimed by their rightful owners within 90 days, they’re either disposed of or sold to the Unclaimed Baggage Center, which buys boxes of luggage by the pound, sight unseen. “You never know what you’re going to get until you open it up,” Cantrell says. “It’s a big gamble.” Sometimes they get clothes, electronics, or books—items that can be easily sold. Sometimes they get collector’s items such as a signed Salvador Dali print. And sometimes, well, they narrowly avoid being bitten by a rattlesnake.
Cantrell, 35, has worked at the Unclaimed Baggage Center for 14 years, first as a concierge and currently as the company’s “Brand Ambassador.” As she grew up in Scottsboro, shopping at the center was a regular part of her upbringing. “I bought most of my school clothes here,” she says. “I bought knick-knacks for my bedroom. This place is part of who I am. It’s my second home.” That history of treasure-hunting makes it easy for her to identify with the store’s regular shoppers. Visitors come from all 50 states and 40 different countries. Many make annual pilgrimages to the center. But the truly devoted live just a short car ride away, Cantrell says, and they visit weekly and sometimes daily. “They’re very passionate,” she says. “It’s not just about the discounts”—although she admits these are substantial, with many items selling for 50 percent to 80 percent below retail—”it’s about finding something you’ll never find anywhere else.”
The center stocks anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 new items every day, most of them gone within a month. “That’s what makes it exciting,” Cantrell says. “Every day, there could be some rare, priceless gem hidden in the store somewhere. Maybe you’ll find a digital camera for half the price you’d get in a store. Or a $2,000 diamond ring, selling for $20.”
It’s not uncommon for customers to make a profit. Long before her time, Cantrell says, somebody bought a Barbie for her daughter, only to discover that the doll’s body was filled with $500 in rolled-up bills. “There was a lady who purchased an oil painting for about $60,” Cantrell says. “She did some research, and I guess it was painted by a famous artist and was actually worth around $20,000. Our loss is her gain.”
Not all the best items are available for sale—at least not immediately. When Unclaimed Baggage handlers opened a box and discovered a replica of a 15th century suit of armor, it immediately became the star attraction at the center’s museum, which also houses a Chinese opium scale, a violin from the 18th century, a NASA camera, and most famous of all, Hoggle, the dwarf-goblin gatekeeper from the 1986 David Bowie movie, Labyrinth.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” Cantrell says. “Sometimes you go, ‘Oh, well that’s different.’ But it’s never shocking. At this point, I feel like I’ve seen it all.”
The armor was eventually sold, which Cantrell still regrets. “Some things are irreplaceable,” she says. “We have a hand-carved wooden menorah as part of our museum display, but it’s not like we’ll never get another menorah. We haven’t seen another full suit of armor come through. Which isn’t to say we won’t, but it hasn’t happened yet.” For better or worse, Cantrell knows that nothing stays at the Unclaimed Baggage Center for long. “That’s why people keep coming back,” she says. “It’s the treasure hunt aspect. You never know if you’re going to find a brand name for a great price, or a suit of armor.”
And sometimes, if you’re lucky, you might stumble on something that looks familiar for a reason. Cantrell remembers one man, visiting Alabama on business, who bought a pair of ski boots at the center as a gift for his wife. When he brought them home, he realized why the boots seemed so perfectly suited for her: “They were her boots,” Cantrell says. “She’d lost them during a ski trip a few months earlier. The airline reimbursed her, of course. But what are the odds that her husband would pick out those specific boots, and then spend $45 for them, paying a second time for the exact same boots his wife had already bought once?”
It’s a risk that every customer takes when they walk into the Unclaimed Baggage Center; what looks a bargain today could become an ironic “I bought my own luggage back” switcheroo tomorrow.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Bloomberg Businessweek website.)