DAVID GREENE, HOST:
If you lose your luggage on a flight, you know - you check with the airline, it usually involves waiting in some line, and if you're lucky, they find your suitcase and deliver it. Do you ever wonder what happens if the luggage never gets reunited with its owner? That takes us to northern Alabama, right near the Tennessee border, a shopper's paradise, just off Highway 72. All of that permanently lost luggage ends up at the Unclaimed Baggage Center. The store has made Scottsboro, Alabama one of the state's top tourist destinations. Over a million people visit annually. NPR's Emily Ochsenschlager was one of them.
EMILY OCHSENSCHLAGER, BYLINE: The Unclaimed Baggage Center is like the best yard sale you've ever been to - on steroids.
BRENDA CANTRELL: When you see people come in that have never been here before, they get about 10 feet in the store, and they stop and they look around like, what have I gotten itself into?
OCHSENSCHLAGER: Brenda Cantrell is the brand ambassador for the Unclaimed Baggage Center, and she's right. Walking through the doors is like walking into an old-school department store filled with the kind of stuff people take on vacation with them. There are racks of women's tank tops, shirts and skirts. There's even a section for formalwear, including wedding dresses. Need a straw hat for that beach vacation? There are plenty to choose from. Hitting the links with friends? The Unclaimed Baggage Center has golf clubs too. There's a whole section for electronics, e-readers, MP3 players, headphones - oh boy, are there headphones. Laptops, tablets and in case you're wondering, there are plenty of charges to buy, too. Near the front of the store I spy something sparkly.
CANTRELL: We're headed straight to the jewelry counter where you're going to find all kinds of goodies. We recently sold a Rolex watch that was valued at $60,000 and we sold it for $30,000.
OCHSENSCHLAGER: I don't see a lot of Rolexes on display but there are a lot of rings. Engagement rings, gold rings, white gold rings, elaborately carved rings. And...
CANTRELL: We've got men's wedding bands. (Laughter) You know, we don't know the story behind those.
OCHSENSCHLAGER: ...Someone might be in trouble for that one.
CANTRELL: I would think so. I would agree with that.
OCHSENSCHLAGER: There is a lot of trouble that wallets could get into here. Brenda Cantrell says, think of all the things that people bring with them to pass the time in airports and on plane rides.
CANTRELL: Let me tell you what people travel with. (Laughter) They travel with hats, they travel with jackets, eyeglasses, books, neck pillows, lap blankets...
OCHSENSCHLAGER: The sheer amount of stuff at the Unclaimed Baggage Center makes it seem like a lot of luggage gets lost. But according to SITA, an aviation communications and technology company, fewer than 1 percent of bags were mishandled in 2013. Airlines have up to 90 days to try to reunite missing bags with their owners. After that, the bag earns a one-way ticket to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama. Brenda Cantrell says, they've seen just about everything at the Unclaimed Baggage Center.
CANTRELL: We have a six-foot-long snake skin. We have a whale vertebrae, a stuffed goose, moose antlers.
OCHSENSCHLAGER: And one time, a bag had a shrunken head in it - yes, it was real. The store didn't put any of that up for sale but these things were in someone's luggage. Despite the occasional odd item, Brenda Cantrell says, most of what's in the luggage tells a story about who the travelers are. And more broadly, who we are.
CANTRELL: We're a reflection of what's going on in trends; traveling trends and electronics trends, clothing trends. You know, who would've thought you could walk into a store, an Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama and had a full view of what's going on in America.
OCHSENSCHLAGER: And if the Unclaimed Baggage Center is any sign, we love our electronics, we love looking sharp and we don't mind a little bling.
Emily Ochsenschlager, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.