Business & Real Estate

Rummage sales benefit community at every stage of the resale business


Photo courtesy of LAUMC
Shoppers find treasures and oddities at the Los Altos United Methodist Church rummage sale.

Rummage sales have survived many of the disruptions reconfiguring retail – the spread of online networks may have only strengthened the tradition of assembling a mass of secondhand goods as a community fundraiser.

May represents a boom time in local rummage sales, with Los Altos United Methodist Church and Foothills Congregational Church holding decades-old efforts that draw shoppers from around the Bay Area and, in a few cases of nostalgia and longtime participation, even out of state. The city of Mountain View recently hosted a citywide garage sale, mapping out 175 participating homes and groups who opened their card tables of excess goods to the community. Other community sales dot the year’s calendar.

Rummage sales funded early building projects for communities like St. Simon Catholic Church and Parish School, which has moved over time to focusing rummage profits on benevolent causes. But back in the 1950s, the church’s cash-strapped early members ran the sale as a way to complete facilities, rummage organizer Pattie Sharrow recalled.

After starting the sale in 1962 to support a newly formed, cash-poor church in need of facilities work, Foothills Congregational’s rummage sale has also evolved into a behemoth annual event largely benefiting charitable causes. Its first record of a profit – $700 in 1964 – grew into something closer to $14,000 this year. This year the church took the radical step of raising prices for the first time in a decade, setting a minimum of 50 cents for each item or set of items (25 cents on half-price day).

Powered by volunteer labor

Foothills sale co-chairwoman Mary Alden estimated that church and community volunteers invest 1,000 hours in the sale each year, transforming their Los Altos campus for a week.

“The Sunday before, we tell everybody to wear work clothes to church. As soon as the service is over, we reconfigure the campus for rummage,” she said.

A parishioner engineer used modeling software to design a pew-storage conformation that could be choreographed by just four strong volunteers stripping the sanctuary. Boy Scouts who meet at the church come at the end of the sale to help with the two-hour frenzy of reorganization that returns the church to its ecclesiastical setup. Foothills even has one family volunteering as year-round Craigslist assistants, selling items too large to bring to (or store for) the sale.

“Kids as young as 2 years old can help – you give them a box, tell them where to take it and they do it,” Sharrow said of the St. Simon volunteers. “Parents don’t get much work done, but the kids are learning to do service. Our eldest workers this year are 95 and 96 – people with more than 50 years of service work the sale, and it becomes a family event.”

Serving shoppers

Alden sees shoppers ranging from neighbors to professional resellers and to community members looking to buy something particular on a budget. Foothills advertises the sale in Spanish, English and Chinese and tries to spread the word around the most labor-intensive, low-paid jobs in the community. Their goal: sell only quality clothes and goods, and sell them at an intentional underprice, on average 30 percent below local charity and thrift shops. Watching a mother and son pick out his first suit, with tie and shirt, gives a particular kind of satisfaction, Alden said.

“A woman was going through the flowers and talking about how she was worried about how she would (afford to) decorate her house for her daughter’s quinceanara,” Alden recalled, noting that she pointed the shopper toward 5-foot-long garlands priced at 10 cents apiece. “She took the whole batch and came back and told us that she decorated her whole house and they were so successful, she was going to leave them up.”

Karen Van Buren, who serves as co-chairwoman of Los Altos United Methodist’s rummage sale, has volunteered for the past two decades for a sale that now makes more than $30,000 a year for the church’s charitable causes. They, too, intentionally underprice relative to market prices, and she described the half-price sale on Saturdays as a self-conscious effort to serve low-income shoppers who particularly need value. For other, casual shoppers, the sale provides a chance to peer into the peculiar shopping habits of their fellow humans.

“I’ve learned that no matter how bizarre an object is, somebody wants it,” Van Buren said with humor. “Some of us go to white elephant parties at Christmas, and we buy all of our white elephants at the sale.”

Not-so-small fringe benefits

Foothills Congregational invites local organizations that support families in need to send a representative who can shop for free at the end of the sale and acquire needed goods in bulk. The Salvation Army receives the remainder. All of the other church rummage sales adopt a similar approach, handpicking requested items for local charities during the rummage sale preparation process and sending off appropriate items at the end of the weekend.

St. Simon works with two dozen charities to handpick needed items ranging from newborn clothing to rape crisis kits.

“At the hospital, you have to surrender your clothing to the police for evidence,” Sharrow noted. “The Grateful Garment Project wants new clothes with tags on and body soap, so that after the police are done, (assault victims) can shower and dress.”

In recent years, local groups ranging from foster youth supporter Help One Child to Random Acts of Flowers, a bouquet-delivery nonprofit perpetually in need of vases as it ministers to the sick and elderly, found treasures through the rummage sale and were comped the price of goods.

Reuse has its rewards

Cynthia Palacio, an analyst who specializes in waste reduction and recycling for the city of Mountain View, conceived of the citywide sale in 2002 as a way to fulfill the civic mandate to “reuse,” as well as a cost-saving diversion of secondhand goods from the landfill.

The city registers families and neighborhood groups and maps their addresses for shoppers, coordinating the when and where for the sale and leaving the “what” up to individual families. The sale was held May 5-6 this year. Letting households sell out of their own homes addresses the problem of heavy or bulky items that may be difficult to transfer to other rummage sales or donation sites.

“When you put things in the trash and they go to the landfill, your city pays for the tonnage by weight, and that’s translated into the city’s rates,” Palacio explained.

She measures the garage sale’s performance not only in participation, but also estimated waste fees saved. Of the 256 households that participated this year, she guesstimates that the city may have saved $12,000-$17,000 just in waste fees.

The spiritual value of reuse also motivates local rummage volunteers, who extend the life of household goods as a good in itself.

“One of the things that a lot of people don’t realize is that there are people in Los Altos who live a frugal life because of necessity,” Sharrow noted. “Their home is paid for, but they’re living on a Social Security check of less than $2,000 a month, and that is hard to do. They’re looking for household goods and clothing.”

Funding causes

St. Simon, which makes approximately $30,000 a year from its rummage sale, sees its profits swing based on whether donors provide big-ticket items such as cars. Los Altos United Methodist sometimes receives entire estates-worth of goods. The cash proceeds – which can seem like a side benefit after listing the other beneficiaries intended by the sales – fuel charitable projects throughout the year.

Los Altos United Methodist’s youth choir, which helps host the rummage sale, uses some of the proceeds to travel to Mexico on house-building trips in the summer. The profits also fund nonprofit causes the church supports locally and internationally, ranging from the Support Network for Battered Women to the Correctional Institutions Chaplaincy.

St. Simon funds projects including house-building in Tijuana, and a year-round fund for good works that parishioners can petition for causes that inspire them.

St. Simon has scheduled its annual rummage sale 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sept. 14 and 9 a.m. to 2 pm. Sept. 15. The city of Mountain View, Foothills Congregational and Los Altos United Methodist hold their sales in May of each year.

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