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They've Got Baggage

Thanks to this one-of-a-kind business, countless travelers' losses are one small town's gain.

A 5.8-carat diamond ring. A full suit of armor. A live rattlesnake. We'll take "Things most people can't even imagine owning, let alone traveling with" for $400, Alex. But there are people who have, and stranger still, never claimed the bags in which these items were discovered. And so these lost treasures ended up in the sleepy little town of Scottsboro, Alabama, at a one-of-a-kind business known as Unclaimed Baggage Center--or in the case of the snake, set free in the cemetery behind it.

"We can speculate about a lot of things," says Brenda Cantrell, Unclaimed Baggage Center's marketing director. "But we always say, 'If these bags could talk, what a story they could tell.'"

Doyle Owens started what is now Unclaimed Baggage Center in 1970 when he got a call from a friend in Washington, D.C., who worked for a bus line and had several unclaimed bags on his hands. Owens borrowed $300 from one grandfather, a pickup from the other and hit the road. When he brought the luggage back to Scottsboro, he figured out he was on to something when the items he found inside sold so quickly. After a few years, he approached the airline industry and moved the business into the 40,000-square-foot building where it's still located. The business has since been passed on to Doyle's son, Bryan, and is now one of Alabama's top tourist destinations, attracting more than a million visitors every year.

A large part of Unclaimed Baggage Center's success is that it's the only store of its kind, something Cantrell says can be attributed to the store's long-standing and good relationships with the major airlines. So those curious enough to want to see it for themselves have no choice but to visit tiny Scottsboro, a quintessential Southern town nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. Cantrell says the store's location is an appropriate reflection of its personality.

"The fact that you have to drive just a little bit off the beaten path to get here makes it that much more intriguing," she says. "If we were in downtown Nashville or downtown Atlanta or downtown Chicago, we would just be another neat store. It wouldn't be as mystical as it is here. It's very fortunate that it's in the South because it allows us to showcase the beauty of our state, the friendliness of the people and just what a great place we are. It's just our little corner of Heaven up here. I could not imagine us anywhere else. It's just who we are."

While the store has certainly seen its share of strange and wonderful items--a museum inside the building contains Egyptian artifacts, an 18th-century violin and other items all found in unclaimed luggage--60 percent of the store's merchandise is clothing. In fact, Unclaimed Baggage has its own off-site laundry facility where about 40,000 pieces of apparel get cleaned every month--more than most commercial cleaners see in an entire year. Customers can often find high-end designer items for a fraction of their original cost, as well as brand-new items. Cantrell says that the store is able to acquire so many quality items because shopping is often the top activity for female travelers and because of people's natural packing tendencies.

"When people travel, they have the things they want, so you're going to find your better items in personal luggage," she says. "That's part of what the treasure hunt's about. You just never know what you're going to find when you walk in the door."

Those searching for treasure in the more literal sense can visit the store's always-crowded jewelry counter, which features everything from $5 silver earrings to diamond and platinum pendants from Tiffany. And then there's the "serious inquiries only" section, home to diamond-encrusted watches and bracelets valued at more than $20,000 but priced to sell for the bargain price of around $11,000. It's something Cantrell says she can't explain even after working at the store for more than 10 years.

"That's one of the things that surprises me the most--the jewelry that people pack--very expensive and exquisite items," she says. "My theory is if it's not necessary and you can't wear it, just don't take it. Lots of people have benefitted from what other people packed."

One such beneficiary of those inexplicable packing habits is Jacqueline Kimball of Maryland, who read about the store online and made a detour during a trip to Louisiana with a group of friends to see it for herself.

"It looked like fun," Kimball says. "We didn't know exactly what to expect, and we're shoppers. The gold jewelry counter has been a hit. We've been here 10 minutes and we've already spent $1,000."

Of course, another large part of Unclaimed Baggage Center's draw is that it's as much an experience as it is a shopping destination. For several years, the store sold certain items on its website, including the aforementioned suit of armor. But when it became apparent that online sales focused mostly on electronics and generally belied the store's image, Cantrell says, management decided to return to its roots.

"That's not what our store's all about," she says. "So we decided to pull down the online store and focus on the pictures we have and the stories we have so people can get a better understanding of what Unclaimed Baggage is all about and give them a little taste of wanting to make that trip to Alabama."

True to its down-home ties, Unclaimed Baggage Center also makes every effort to give back to the locals. The store donates about a third of all the items it gets to charity, and other local businesses are reaping the benefits of their 40,000-square-foot neighbor. One such business is the Blue Willow Restaurant, located just a few blocks from Unclaimed Baggage in a converted Victorian house. Owner Sandra Grigg says the Blue Willow gets about 75 percent of its business from Unclaimed Baggage, whose employees often recommend it to out-of-town visitors.

"Unclaimed Baggage has been the best thing that's happened to Scottsboro in a long time," she says. "It's just a great place. The people there are very conscientious. They want people to know about the area and they tell them what is around. People like to come in here because it's homey. We tell them about the town and about the history of the house. They love to hear the stories. We love to converse with the people who come to Unclaimed Baggage. You can normally tell who they are. It's special to them. A lot of times they go home and then we get cards and letters from them, saying what a wonderful time they had here."

Justin Petruccelli is an associate editor for Entrepreneur.com. He can be reached at jpetruccelli@entrepreneur.com.

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