All About Rummage Sales

Discover why rummage sales can offer you a money-saving, grass-roots way to purchase and recycle items like clothes or household goods.
By Nancy Bubel
May/June 1971
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Many people have found very valuable treasures while shopping at a local rummage sale.
PHOTO: FOTOLIA/YVAN REITSEROF


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Do you hanker for an alternative to Bigger—Better—New—Improved consumerism? Do discount stores and sterile shopping malls give you metaphysical nausea? Are you offended by plastic and depressed by those nasty "gift catalogues"—all alike—addressed to you in personalized computerese? Me too. But you still may need a spring coat, fabric for a wall hanging, a few sweaters, some dishes or slacks to wear around the homestead this season. So do I . . . but you won't find me paying fifteen dollars for them at any flossy shopping mall. I'll get mine at a rummage sale for ten or twenty-five cents.

Rummaging is loads of fun—if you like treasure hunts—and is a marvelous grass-roots way of recycling clothes and household goods. No top-heavy organization or sophisticated equipment is needed for rummage sales so you'll find them just about anywhere you go. Churches, fire company auxiliaries, lodges and women's clubs dispose of their surplus and outgrowns this simple way. It both makes money for the group and gives everyone involved a good morning's gossip. Cities, small towns—even some farmers' markets—have their rummage sales . . . usually in the spring and fall when folks are cleaning closets. Some organizations hold a sale both seasons, allowing you to be well-dressed year-round . . . without ever leaving your favorite charity!

Where and when are the rummage sales? Small town newspapers, radio stations and advertising flyers usually carry the notices. In a city, neighborhood newspapers and supermarket bulletin boards are your best bets. And—in both towns and cities—make a mental note of the location of the sales you attend. Often, the same vacant store is rented by a succession of groups offering rummage. Some city rummage sales are refined to the point of offering special sections of "antiques", "better dresses", "nearly new" and such. Prices, of course, are boosted to match; five to ten dollars for a really elegant coat or several dollars for a name-brand dress in excellent condition (though if the label matters, I doubt you've read this far!) 

At small town sales I've found near-antiques; some really good quality, well made clothes; and a few brand new things mixed in with the general run of stuff . . . all priced at a fraction of what you'd pay at the "boutique" rummages. You never know what you will turn up, of course. That's what makes it as much fun as a combined fishing expedition and grab bag outing.

O.K. So you know when to perk up your rummage antennae . . . now, what's the best way to approach the sport? There are two ways of looking at this. Many organizations hold their sale open for two days—or a day and an evening. Naturally, the best selection is available when the event first starts . . . and that means when the door opens. This is usually awaited by a line of at-the-ready shoppers as impatient to charge as kids fidgeting for the school dismissal bell. It's a funny thing to see. Prices are higher the first day (or morning of a one-day sale) than they'll be later on, but if you're looking for a particular item—skates, boots, an iron—this is the time to go. Toys and children's books always disappear soon . . . as do boys' clothes, dishes and useable appliances. When I go to a rummage sale, I arrive either at the very beginning (best selection) or at the very end (best prices). In the middle you get neither though. of course, if that's the only time you can get there it's still worth going.

At the end of a sale, the good ladies are anxious to clear out and go home and the clothing they're still knee-deep in begins to look less dear. Often they'll say "ten cents an item" or "fill a bag (standard grocery bag) for 50¢ or so. Coats go for a quarter ad skirts and blouses for a dime. Odds and ends such as doll clothes, sox and miscellaneous dishes are a penny each. Much depends on the group, the amount of leftover stock and the size of the haul they've already made. Which is to say that sometimes your coat comes high and sometimes low . . . but never more than two dollars. And where else could you do as well? Think of all those hidden taxes you're not paying . . . and where they're not going. When you rummage regularly things even out, and the occasional higher price you pay for something you dearly want will be balanced by the ridiculous lows paid for other things.

I've picked up some pointers by watching the pros at our local rummage sales. One woman, for instance, always wears a cloth tape measure around her nee for checking trouser length and waistline measurements and most people keep their hands free for further treasure hunting by stuffing their finds into large shopping bags that they bring along. I sometimes a bag too,, but often find it just as convenient push around a large cardboard box (always available able from carted-in stuff). This both holds more and leaves my hands free and I just shove the carton from one table to another with my foot or kick it under a table if it's in the way.

I've found that the more I buy at a rummage sale, the lower the price of each individual item and several bags full of goods averaging ten cents apiece is not at all unusual. Since rummage prices already present a huge saving over the cost of a new garment (provided, of course, that the recycled item is in good or repairable condition) these even-greater savings make it advantageous for you to trade "standing orders" with a friend. Maybe her children need sweaters and skirts and yours need boots and jackets. When the friend goes rummaging, she can look for your needs and you can try to fill both lists when you're at a sale.

If you buy a great deal at one rummage, as I often do, you may be given a "price" on the whole lot. Once I happened on a sale that still had its tables filled to overflowing on the second day. I lightened the sponsoring group's packing-up chores considerably, and filled both the loading and the passenger areas of our VW squareback. The saleslady charged me $3.25 for that haul and we parted mutually pleased. I was especially happy because—at less than 3¢ apiece—I had velour turtleneck shirts for my husband, bathing suits for my children, a folding stair gate to grow cucumbers on, coats, dresses, books and the ingredients of several Halloween costumes . . .

I'm not always absolutely certain that what I toss in the carton will fit me and my family but, if it doesn't, we have friends in different sizes. It is a good idea to check seams for rips, odd places for moth holes, and zippers—especially—for function. I've more than once brought home a pair of jeans for my son—wonder of wonders, intact at the knee—only to find that the zipper was beyond hope. I do plan to replace those zippers but I must admit that that job keeps sifting to the bottom of the mending pile.

Rummage clothes are generally recycled by being washed and worn again but there are other ways of reusing the loot, too. Some garments are worth the dime or quarter they cost just for the buttons and zippers you get to refurbish or remake other clothes. And be alert to the fabric possibilities in full-skirted dresses: Often they're discarded because of a rip in the arm or a stain on the collar while the skirt fabric is still bright and new. Culottes, peasant skirts and simple play clothes for children, patchwork ingredients and place mats are a few uses I've found for this material. One nylon jersey dress in a boat-and-chart print made a luxurious, no-iron pillow case for my son . . . cost; a dime and some time.

If you sew stuffed toys you can use old stockings or soft coat linings for their "innards". Fur and leather pieces cry out to be made into puppets. Odd pieces of cloth make interesting table runners. Fabric collages cost next to nothing when you have a backlog of textured materials. These are the things you pick up at the end of a sale—for a song and a bit of imagination. The jumbled box of clean rags the ladies want to give away is a find if you have a greasy rototiller needing its oil changed or baby goats frolicking in the kitchen. The remnants are also good for stuffing chinks in the chicken house, to keep out the west wind. We save the less absorbent ones for that purpose. In our household, we recycle the good wool fabric in used clothing into braided rugs that we both use and sell. This is another reason why I buy so much a rummage sales. We pick out the best to wear, and the rest goes into the rugs. Nothing is wasted. Even the wool scraps can be retrieved, soaked and buried in compost or in the garden.

Rummage sales, by the way, are not all second hand clothes and boxes of rags. After you've been to few, you'll develop an eye for the really good stuff—the well-made dress someone tired of, the almost new slacks someone outgrew, the good children's books no one recognizes—and you'll be amazed at the amount of real things that you're going to find I have a Mexican hand-embroidered dress, hand made sweaters, old books, hand-thrown pottery, good old bread pans and such to prove it.

My very first rummage find, back in my high school days, was a Victorian-era photograph book with a hollow center; each page was a frame into which a photo could be slipped. I paid 50¢ for it and from then on, I was hooked. I've since carted home ice skates, baskets, old quilts, folk art, dishes ancient scrapbooks, an iron, plants, a vacuum clearer, the makings of dozens of rugs and, of course clothes. Who knows WHAT I'll find next! The old adage "Wear it out, make it do, use it up", says something to us who savor simplicity, but it doesn't say it all. There's really no need for the long-faced austerity that the motto seems to imply . . . not when it's fun and festive and kind of exuberant to buy things at rummage. Choosing clothes isn't such a heavy thing anymore. Some become favorites, others are transformed into rugs or rags or wall hangings. The cost is low so we take a chance . . . maybe it'll fit, I like the color. Our children have plenty of choices and if something gets ripped or stained or dirty it's no big thing. At 10¢ a dress, why worry? "Be careful of your shirt" isn't heard much around our house. There are other things to be careful of, like wild ferns . . . and seashells . . . and baby rabbits!


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