September 8, 2021

Grand Finale (?) Rummage Sale at Trinity Church Is September 23-25

“A PRINCETITUTION”: The Trinity Church Rummage Sale, in operation since 1971, is scheduled for September 23, 24, and 25 at the Trinity Church on Mercer Street. Trinity Librarian Rob Fraser and Department Chair for Art and Antiquities Connie Escher display some of the thousands of items to be sold to support the church’s outreach efforts in what might be the end of a tradition after 50 years.

By Donald Gilpin

It started in 1971 with just one table for each sales category — used clothing, toys, jewelry, white elephants. A few “better things” (now known as “The Boutique”) were sold on the tiny stage, all in the old Pierce Hall at Trinity Church on Mercer Street. The idea originated in the “jumble sales” in Victorian England, where the Anglican church raised money for itself and for causes worldwide.

Fifty years later the Trinity Church Rummage Sale, with hundreds of thousands of dollars of sales over the years to support the church’s outreach efforts, is preparing for its possible grand finale on September 23, 24, and 25. Thousands of items — clothing, art, antiques, housewares, linens, books, and much more — will fill five or six large rooms at the church. Dozens of volunteers will be working long hours, with many hundreds of shoppers anticipated.

Thursday, September 23 is sale preview day from 1 to 5 p.m., with a $10 entry fee and a long waiting line expected before the 1 p.m. opening. On Friday, September 24, the sale runs from noon to 5 p.m., and on Saturday, September 25, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. (no entry fee on regular sale days).

In preparation for that first sale in 1971, a few volunteers sorted and priced items in front of the Pierce Hall stage, and the items were stored on the stage and in two small rooms. The treasurer’s report from 1971 lists a total of $2,585.77 in sales of accessories, children’s clothes, fun and games, household jewelry, bric-a-brac, and men’s and women’s clothes.

“The volume of the sale grew almost exponentially,” according to a 1987 Trinity Church report titled “Come, Celebrate Rummage at Trinity: A Serious Enterprise.” The previous year the Boutique and Better Dresses sections had produced “an astounding $18,000 in six hours of non-stop action,” with the one-day event earning $25,000. 

A 1985 lead volunteer reported, “The donations have been wonderful. You really can’t imagine the variety of items we receive and the pleasure, joy, and sometimes amazement they give to others. We had a beautiful wedding gown in 1983 and it fit the girl who bought it down to the last stitch. The next year she came back with her wedding picture and her new husband to meet us!”

She continued, “And we can’t forget the locked steamer trunk! We hoped it contained a vast treasure, but what it did contain was 57 towels (from a New York hotel), 10 pounds of sugar (from 1942), and a couple of cans of sardines that had burst over everything! We washed the towels, scrubbed the trunk, and sold both.”

Since then sales in many years have surpassed $40,000 with all the proceeds going not to the church itself but to the church’s outreach efforts serving Central New Jersey and beyond.

Organizations receiving support through the Trinity Rummage Sale include Chorus Foundation, Housing Initiatives of Princeton, Episcopal Relief and Development, Gaia Global AIDS Interfaith Alliance, Urban Promise, Foundation Cristosal, Rescue Mission of Trenton, Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, Habitat for Humanity, and Big Brothers Big Sisters.

A 1985 statement from the Trinity Church Vestry described the purpose of the Rummage Sale “to support Trinity’s outreach to Princeton, Trenton, and the world at large.” The vestry statement went on to emphasize the “circular exercise in Christian stewardship,” with significant benefits to donors and beneficiaries alike. “Good humor, good will, firmness, and above all fairness are essential in the inevitable excitement and scramble for bargains,” the statement concluded.

Rummage Sale Department Chair for Art and Antiquities Connie Escher, who, with her daughter alongside in a playpen, began volunteering with the Rummage Sale in 1974, described how the Trinity Rummage Sale has become “a venerable Princetitution” over the years. “It draws a huge throng,” she said.

“From one table to a church full of ‘shops’ with departments specializing in different categories, selling necessities, as well as the unusual and collectibles. Volunteer parishioners have signed on for years in the same spot, for decades in the same department, growing in knowledge of the merchandise in their departments. Children of workers have signed on. ‘Raised on rummage’ is a favorite saying.”

She noted that this year’s sale might be the biggest ever, with the pent-up demand for sale items and huge quantities of merchandise stored up, after sales canceled because of COVID-19 in 2020 and spring 2021.

“The team of devoted volunteers, mostly seniors, who put in thousands of hours have always been supported by those volunteers who could lend a hand in the final days before the sale, and as willing salespeople during the sale itself,” said Escher.

Over the years, sorting, polishing, cleaning, and pricing—“the most challenging work”—have been done year-round in the undercroft of the 188-year-old church. 

Hamilton Jewelers, David Rago of Rago Auctions, and others have helped to evaluate and sell valuable items in the past. Escher recalls the most expensive articles ever sold by the Trinity Rummage Sale, two art works for nearly $50,000 auctioned by Rago Auctions several years ago. 

After this year’s sale, Trinity Church will decide whether to continue with a rummage sale in the coming years. If it continues it would probably be in a diminished fashion that would require less storage space and a smaller-scale organization. 

“The excitement of the sale for the hunter and gatherer in all of us, both workers and shoppers, will be missed if this is the grand finale rummage sale,” said Escher. “But the special planning and disrupting of on-going church activities and spaces, will not be missed.”

She went on, “I believe our shoppers love to come to Princeton and meet the Trinity parishioners in a unique setting. Many of them return as old friends to their favorite departments. The repetition of a warm welcome to all shoppers is another form of stewardship and outreach for Trinity, beyond the cash proceeds of the sale.”