Doyle Owens, Founder of the Unclaimed Baggage Center, Dies at 85


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Doyle Owens

Doyle Owens, who turned the orphaned contents of passengers’ lost luggage into the Unclaimed Baggage Center, a major retail and tourist attraction in Scottsboro, Ala., died on Saturday at his home there. He was 85.

His son Bryan confirmed his death.

Mr. Owens built his business on a traveler’s nightmare: not finding your suitcase, duffle bag or trunk on the airport carousel while others walk off with their own.

“We never know what’s in those suitcases until we open them,” Mr. Owens said in 1978. “It’s like buying a pig in a poke.”

An estimated one million people trek to Unclaimed Baggage each year and roam through its cavernous 40,000 square feet to sift through stuff that was never returned to its original owners.

Mr. Owens was selling insurance in 1970 when a friend with the Trailways bus company told him of its unclaimed baggage in Washington. Intrigued, Mr. Owens borrowed a pickup truck and $300 and bought the bags.

“We looked like Jed Clampett’s clan coming back down from Washington, D.C., to Alabama,” Mr. Owens said in an interview with his grandson Benjamin that was recorded four years ago.

Mr. Owens and his wife, Mollie Sue, rented a house, set up tables and sold out that first day, he recalled. The success accelerated his purchases: He bought up more unclaimed luggage of bus riders and then expanded his ambitions to airlines, which had many more bags to misplace.

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The Unclaimed Baggage Center in Scottsboro, Ala., which Mr. Owens founded, attracts a million visitors a year.

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Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

The loss of belongings entrusted to an airline has long been grist for angry letters and comedy routines, like one by Rhod Gilbert, who arrived in Australia to find only the handle of his new suitcase on the carousel. Asked by an airline employee if “anything could have interfered with it,” he said, he replied, “I don’t think it can be ruled out!”

Airlines are getting better at finding lost luggage. According to the Transportation Department, an average of 2.75 per 1,000 passengers reported mishandled luggage through the first nine months of 2016 — about one-third the rate of 10 years ago.

Tracking technology has been improving airlines’ ability to find and return errant baggage. But many passengers still land without the clothes and toiletries they packed, hoping that they will be found quickly.

Baggage that does not find its owners will quite likely reappear in Scottsboro, a small city in northeast Alabama that is perhaps best known for the wrongful convictions of nine black teenagers — known historically as the Scottsboro Boys — accused of raping two white women in 1931.

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The Unclaimed Baggage Center is not only a retail business but also a tourist attraction.

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Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

Each day, at least 5,000 new items are added to the store’s shelves, brought by tractor-trailers from major airports. The merchandise goes through a retail triage: Employees decide what will be sold, donated or discarded. Many of the items that go on display are shoes, electronics, jewelry, and clothing that is dry-cleaned on site, selling for 20 percent to 80 percent off retail prices. Many laptops cost $200 to $400; wedding gowns range from $75 to several hundred dollars.

“This is just American ingenuity,” Brett Snyder, the president of Cranky Flier, an airline industry blog, said of the store. “Finding a niche opportunity and putting it to use.”

The luggage has yielded surprises over the years, like a suit of armor, a live rattlesnake, a gravestone, a snake skin, a 42-carat emerald and Egyptian artifacts dating to 1,500 B.C.

“It tends to be like an archaeological dig,” Bryan Owens said. “And it’s a cross-section of how people are living their lives through their personal possessions.”

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With airlines charging more for checking luggage, many items are now being lost or forgotten in planes’ passenger compartments.

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Joe Buglewicz for The New York Times

His father could not have imagined that as airlines would impose increasing fees to check luggage, people would carry more of their possessions onboard, some of them easy-to-lose electronics like smartphones and tablets.

“A lot of our product comes from above the wing,” he said.

Hugo Doyle Owens was born on July 6, 1931, in Fyffe, Ala. His father, Oliver, and mother, Georgia, owned a general store that sold food and appliances, capitalizing on the spread of electricity to the local farming community.

In high school, Mr. Owens was a running back on the football team, and he spent two years at Jacksonville State University before serving in the Air Force.

He retired in 1995 after he, his wife and his younger son, Mark, sold their shares to Bryan.

He is survived by his sons and three grandsons. His wife died last year.

Mr. Owens never left the store entirely after retiring, often greeting customers and telling stories at its cafe. Last month, he showed up at the store’s annual ski sale, one of the biggest events of the year.

“I called him pretty often,” Bryan Owens said, “and he’d say, ‘You’ll never believe who I met,’ and it would be someone from Bowling Green. And he’d learned their life story.”

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