Traveler's nightmare, scavenger's dream

In this tiny Alabama town, lost luggage from around the world fuels a healthy 'flea-market economy.'

It's just before 8 a.m. on a sultry Wednesday morning, and John Vandyke is ready. For what, he doesn't yet know.

Along with about 60 men, most heavyset with heavy drawls, Mr. Vandyke is up and out early to indulge a common affliction in this northeast Alabama town. You might call it "lost treasure syndrome."

As they wait for one of the country's most unusual discount warehouses to open, the men bunch around the door like hens on corn. Inside await aisles of wayward merchandise that missed the American marketplace by a mile – or many. From waylaid air conditioners to mislaid bins of PVC pipe, this warehouse sells "unclaimed cargo" from around the country – at 30 percent off. It's like a candy store for contractors.

"You never know what you're going to find in there," says Vandyke, a retired tire builder. "A couple of weeks ago I got a chainsaw for 10 bucks – and it runs!"

When the door opens at 8 sharp, the men shoot into the store as if they're being sucked through a straw.

The lost cargo warehouse is the latest outgrowth of humble Scottsboro's international claim to fame: the Unclaimed Baggage Center (UBC). This block-long warehouse is the lost sock drawer of the world's airline travelers.

While less than 1 percent of airline luggage gets so irretrievably lost that airlines have to refund passengers the value of their stuff, that still translates into truckloads of trunks arriving here every morning from as far away as Kuala Lumpur and Gothenburg. Unpacked by the store's crew, some 7,000 new items flood the shelves every day.

This is where a traveler's nightmare turns into a scavenger's dream, the ideal place to indulge that deep human urge to rummage through other people's belongings.

"It's one of the most fun things in my life," says one loquacious lady, just in from the nearby town of Skyline. "Whenever I come into town, even when I tell myself I don't have enough money, I can't resist coming in for a peek. Who can resist a treasure hunt?"

But it also draws international visitors – some of them not necessarily shopping for kicks. Winfred Stewart, who owns the one competing store in town, T&W Unclaimed Baggage, says he regularly gets calls like this: "I was on a plane from London to Paris yesterday and lost my luggage. Do you have it?"

Such panic is understandable. After all, rare Afghan guitars, a 5.6 carat diamond, and a "Hoggle" puppet from Jim Henson's "Labyrinth" movie are but a few of the treasures found alongside more mundane goods like shoes and fishing poles. Recently, a woman found a pair of diamond earrings stuffed into a man's wallet. Another local lady found a big bag of illegal drugs stuffed into a Downy bottle (of course she reported it to the police).

The UBC began in this Alabama backwater because its owner hails from here. But it turns out the store is a natural fit, capitalizing on a much understudied segment of the American marketplace: The "flea-market economy."

The secondhand mentality here is so strong you can hardly get anything new in Scottsboro. The biggest event in town is "First Monday," a flea market that takes place monthly on the town square, drawing thousands of shoppers who march like fevered 49ers out of the round-topped sandhills. The town videogame store is called Player 2; of course, it sells only used games.

Indeed, for many here, shopping is entertainment, as bargains abound and odd detritus – from cameras to church clothes – literally flies in from all over the world. At the same time, all this treasure hunting can take its toll.

One of the UBC's employees, Dan, points to a regular in a blue shirt who's fingering rapidly through some waylaid bolts of cloth at the cargo warehouse. "He's even apologized to me," Dan says, "He goes, 'I wish I could stop, but I just can't help myself.' "

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