I had one of the most depressing shopping experiences ever yesterday, worse even than swimsuit shopping in a store with florescent dressing room lights. I went to the Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Alabama. 

The experience was made all the more depressing by the fact that I’d been looking forward to this adventure for no less than 10 years, when I first learned that a thrift store existed simply to sell all the stuff that travelers packed and checked but never received from the airlines. Where a true thrift store sells stuff that the original owners no longer want, this store has stuff that the owners had wanted badly enough to take with them on trips. Instead of row after row of mismatched dishware and promotional t-shirts, there would be fabulous clothing, ski wear and, of course, lots and lots of bags, I reasoned.

 

Unfortunately, Scottsboro, Alabama is smack dab in the middle of nowhere. It’s neighboring towns are Bumf*@k and Eqypt. (Just kidding. But it is near Arab, Ala.) So never in 10 years had it ever been on my way to anywhere — never until yesterday. Even then, getting there meant a two hour detour.

 

But I hadn’t considered how depressing it would be to wander through thousands of retail square footage full of stuff with which the original owners had not willingly parted. I thought of the huge bag of souvenirs that never made it back from Europe years ago and I wondered if those carefully selected treasures had been parceled out and sold in Scottsboro. I thought, of course, of the bag of baby presents, some handmade, that  I received at my first ever baby shower — a bag I never saw again. Delta compensated me as much as their policy would allow, but they couldn’t compensate me for the hours a dear friend had spent making that baby quilt. I wondered if those gifts had been picked over at the Unclaimed Baggage Center as well. More importantly, I wondered if patronizing a place that sold this stuff for the airlines gave those airlines an incentive to not handle baggage more carefully.

The very name of the place “Unclaimed Baggage Center” seems like a lie, as if people got off their flights and decided not to bother with picking up their bags. As if the airlines contacted them to say “We have your bag,” and the people responded with, “Oh, I don’t want it. You keep it.” In reality the passengers likely stood in Baggage Claim for half an hour or more as the empty carousel went round and round before dejectedly filling out the lost bag forms, then waiting, waiting, waiting and calling every few days to find out if their bags had been found.

Shopping in that store felt like stealing.

There were a ton of clothes for sale, and some looked really nice, but I didn’t even bother trying to pick through most of them. There were cases of expensive jewelry and iPods and iPads galore, but all I could think of were the people who rightfully owned, but never received, these things.

The formal wear section was especially impressive and the prices were great. I admit that I did buy an evening gown from there. But I couldn’t help but notice how many of the dresses still had the original retail store tags still on them. These were dresses that someone bought specifically for a special occasion that they traveled to, intending to wear the gown for the first time at a wedding or a black tie event. I could only imagine the panicked women who left the airport empty-handed and had to rush out to buy new gowns to wear — or who opted to skip the event entirely because they couldn’t find a replacement gown with such short notice.

I saw a Cuisinart food processor still in the box, right next a full set of gourmet chef’s knives, and reasoned that those had to have been wedding gifts. I mean, why else would someone fly with a Cuisinart? There was a full row of matching soccer jerseys for sale. Some airline had apparently lost an entire team’s uniforms. I wondered what that team had done for game day. Forfeited? Had to hastily have new jerseys printed?

 

And then there were the ACUs. Rows and rows of ACUs. And the rugs, several of which were in the distinctive Afghan weaving style. Put the two together and I got a clear picture of soldiers coming home from war, exhausted and having to wait in the airport to claim the gifts they’d purchased for loved ones, gifts that never arrived.

It seems like the airlines would put extra effort into reuniting people on their way home from war with their belongings. I mean, isn’t that the least they can do? But, perhaps to the baggage handlers there’s nothing special about those dusty bags, either.

This is all the more maddening considering that airlines now charge us $20 – $50 for the privilege of having them mishandle our bags AND they won’t let us carry some of those belongings on the plane with us, leaving us no choice but to trust them with our treasures — treasures that very well may end up in Scottsboro. So I won’t be going back to that cute little Alabama town, which seems to boast no other industry than preying on the misfortunes of others. For the most part, the deals weren’t that good —  and they certainly weren’t worth the guilty, dirty feeling I got from the place.