Preparation is over and the last few minutes slowly tick by.
The venue is ready. The volunteers are in place, joking with each other, looking at their watches, enjoying the last moments of quiet.
The hardcore are lined up as the clock counts down: nervously shaking out their legs and shoulders, taking sips from water bottles, fingering their wristbands with inspirational quotes from Nike, Prefontaine and St. Paul. Everyone is smiling and friendly, but you can’t mask the tension. Internally, they’re silently rehearsing their strategies. Everyone knows how important it is to get a good start.
It’s one minute to Go Time at the annual First United Methodist Church Rummage Sale.
The pickers and the salers have it marked on their calendars. It’s a pro-level event with a huge prize list for those who can move fast and make quick decisions. Is that rusty bicycle a classic J.C. Higgins, or a lost cause? Is that platter silver, or stainless steel? Is that bone china, or just some Chinese boner that looks pretty?
The rummage sale is an August tradition at First UMC. It’s our chance to clean out our closets, attics, garages and sheds and get rid of stuff without the guilt of throwing it away. There’s just no telling what people will donate to be sold. We used to say “everything but the kitchen sink”, but then one year someone donated one of those, and we sold it, too. We’ll take pretty much anything except real estate or firearms. Actually, we’ll take those, too, but we won’t resell them - we’ll keep them for ourselves. This year I contributed some speaker stands, shirts, a pair of in-line skates, a “collectible” plate that someone gave me, and a whole bunch of junk that came from my parent’s garage when they moved.
There’s a nearly new self-propelled lawnmower for a hundred fifty dollars, a nice looking entertainment center, and some working-condition antique treadle-type sewing machines. There’s some real crap, too: old VHS tapes, corroded half-sets of golf clubs in bags with broken straps, bent plastic poster frames. All of it is priced to move - small appliances are two dollars, knick-knacks are a quarter.
The church is divided into sales areas: there’s a room for holiday decorations, a room for men’s clothing, and a whole hallway for women’s clothing with a full-length mirror so you don’t have to ask anyone else if the dress makes you look fat. The furniture and lawn care stuff is outside. The gym is full of housewares, artwork, sporting goods, appliances, books and everything else. You can buy baked goods, garden produce, and lunch in the Gathering Place.
The organizing and operation of the sale are a big deal. There’s a cashier’s team, a food crew, and attendants in the various sales areas. The sorting crew works all summer, picking out out the Playboys from the National Geographics, and checking each appliance to be sure it doesn’t smoke when it is plugged in.
It is through the rummage sale that stuff moves in and out of our lives. A couple years ago I scored two fluorescent light fixtures for three bucks. I had the best of intentions to hang them over the workbench in my basement, but a year later, when they were still sitting in the corner of my office, I donated them back to the next sale so the church could get another three bucks out of them.
By the time it’s all over, the mess cleaned up, the leftovers sent to a charity thrift store, and the receipts totaled, we will have raised a few thousand dollars for each of a couple of outreach projects, and to help fund something we need around the church.
Saturday is bag day, when you pay just a dollar for everything you can fit into a grocery sack. Friday is the longest sale day and the traffic is steady. But the real stampede is the Thursday night opening, and that is set to start in sixty seconds.
Customers have been gathering since 3:30, determined to have first crack at the merchandise. When they finally open the front door at 5:00 pm, it will be like Black Friday at WalMart. The first wave will surge in, elbowing and tripping each other. Some go directly to the clothing or collectibles, others to the electronics. In that first hour of the sale, the expert-class shoppers will be sprinting around with armloads of goods … making trips in and out to their cars, or hiding things in corners where other shoppers can’t find them. It’s amazing what people will buy, and everything is a treasure to someone. The Grand Prize is whatever is most important to the buyer: a watchband, a barstool, a vacuum cleaner, a deck of cards.
I walked through about 4:30, just to see if there was anything I needed. There was one of those adult potty chair things that they use in nursing homes and sick rooms where people can’t get to the bathroom easily. It would almost be worth two dollars to buy it and take it home and put it in the bedroom and tell MSL I’m tired of having to go all the way downstairs to pee in the middle of the night.
There were hand tools, neckties, crutches, a fireplace grate, and a ceramic clown playing a cello. I found an old filmstrip projector like we had when I was in elementary school. I have absolutely no need for it, but I think it’s cool and it’s only three dollars and if it is still here tomorrow ….
As I look around at the tables piled high with stuff for sale, the practical side of me says, “what a bunch of junk”. Most of this stuff should have been thrown away, or maybe not even manufactured in the first place. But, there’s a sentimental side of me that wonders about the story behind that nice set of dishes, and there’s something sad about realizing that someone has passed the point of ever needing a child’s bed frame again. All over the building, there’s evidence of stages of life passing behind us.
My sister-in-law passed away in April when her second round of cancer came back fast and mean. Her clothes are for sale, downstairs. She had a generous heart and would love to know that someone else will now enjoy her eclectic taste.
Balancing that melancholy, though, is the fact that this rummage sale involves a lot of our church members who wouldn’t otherwise interact with each other. They’ll have a great time working together and interacting with the customers. It’s an overwhelmingly positive event for the church.
It’s about to get really busy in here. I have things to do upstairs in my office, and I have about sixteen seconds to get there before I find myself swimming upstream against a tide of shoppers swarming the other way down the hallway. By the time you read this, it will be too late to participate this year. But if you like a good deal, and you think you can shop with the professionals, mark your calendar now for the first Thursday in August, next year.