The last Rummage Sale: Rummage retires at 65

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by Karen Katz ’74 communications director, Rummage announcer, and former sporting goods department chair 

This year, we celebrate the Rummage Sale’s 65th anniversary. As we mark this milestone, we will also commemorate the sale’s retirement. Yes, that’s right, Rummage is retiring at age 65 after the 2009 sale. I talked at length with Lark Palma, head of school, and Lesley Sepetoski, Rummage Sale coordinator since 2000, to find out why this amazing sale is being retired after this year.

Why are we retiring Rummage?

Lark: As much as we love the Rummage Sale, external forces have steadily eroded our ability to put on a great sale and deliver the best benefits to the school and the community. These include the advent of eBay and Craigslist, which have drawn high-value rummage away from us; discount retailers, second-hand, and consignment outlets; a shrinking pool of available volunteers; and ever-rising overhead costs.
Lesley: The Sale has been our cherished tradition for 65 years, but it raises far less money for financial aid than it once did. In inflation-adjusted dollars, Rummage revenue actually peaked nearly 30 years ago. Ten years ago, the sale raised 20 percent of our financial aid budget. Rummage now only contributes 7 percent of our financial aid budget, at a tremendous cost to us in hard work, volunteer time, and money. It’s hard to say “farewell,” but it’s time to find new ways to accomplish for the school what Rummage has done for 65 years.

Rummage is such a great community event. How will we replicate that?

Lark: The sense of community we gain from Rummage is vitally important to our school’s well-being. We’re sad that this will be the last sale. So many of us will miss seeing old friends and coming together for a common purpose. It is hard to let go of the iconic things about Rummage like the wobbly green carts, the red roustabout hats, Sid Eaton at the microphone, and the festive feel of the presale. In January we will bring folks together to brainstorm community-building activities and come up with new ideas to replicate the kind of community spirit generated each year at the Rummage Sale.

What were the factors that went into making the decision?

Lesley: After every sale we debrief with key volunteers, parents, development staff members, and finance committee members. It is clear from what they have said — and from the 2008 parent survey about Rummage — that our community is deeply committed to supporting financial aid and to community-building activities, but Rummage is not effectively serving either purpose. For the past several years we have been concerned about the amount of effort put forth for the sale compared with the benefit. The tipping point was the realization that 12,000 volunteer hours amounted to just 7 percent of our financial aid budget. 

Who made the decision to make this the last Rummage Sale and what was the process?

Lark: Volunteers, alumni, parents, trustees, and faculty-staff who know and love the sale and who understand our financial aid needs came to me with their concerns about the sale’s viability. I could not ignore the strong case for retiring Rummage made by some of the sale’s most devoted supporters and volunteers. Ultimately, I made the decision to make this year’s sale our last.

Will there be less financial aid available without Rummage?

Lark: The sale has been phenomenally successful, and for many years it was the school’s only source of financial aid. But times have changed, and we can raise much more if we turn our attention to less expensive ways of fundraising. Right now, we plan on increasing financial aid support through direct gifts from alumni and current families, foundation grants, and corporate sponsorships. A board of trustees task force will look at our options and work with the development office to ensure that we replace our Rummage revenue and create new programs that raise as much money or more.

What’s going to happen to Lesley?

Lark: Lesley is an asset to the school, and I am thrilled about her new role focusing on alumni and community relations.

Is this the first time the school has considered retiring Rummage?

Lesley: No, it is not. The conversation is decades old and familiar to many in our community, including alumni, parents, volunteers, students, and faculty. As a community, we identify with and take pride in this unique endeavor, and yet we struggle each year to rally the troops. We have continued because the core idea of the Rummage Sale is good, even though we have known for some time that the results no longer justify the effort and expense. It was an agonizing decision. 

Then why didn’t we retire Rummage sooner?

Lark: Tradition! The sale is a grand tradition, and nobody likes to see a tradition end — especially one that generates so many fun stories and such amazing community spirit. But this is a tradition we can no longer afford. Our tradition of supporting students who need financial aid is too important to continue an event that does not generate the financial aid we need. 

Let’s get back to the volunteer question. Why don’t we have the volunteers in place to continue the sale?

Lark: The enormous energy expended by so many dedicated Rummage volunteers is inspiring. However, the nature of volunteering has changed so much from the early days of the sale. People still want to volunteer, but they want more flexibility. Many simply don’t have the time to volunteer the way they once did. Families are more scheduled into after-school and weekend activities than before. Parents who volunteer during the week want to work near their children, help in the classroom, and make a difference on campus. We are excited about the huge potential created when our amazing volunteers set their minds on the next big thing. We clearly need to create another avenue that continues the Rummage legacy of bringing our community together to work side by side.

As an alumna and the mother of one alumnus and one current student, I really value the lessons students learn through the Rummage Sale. What about that?

Lark: Sid Eaton, retired teacher and stalwart Rummage announcer, once said, “You can always tell a Catlin Gabel alum – get more than six of them in one place and they form a bucket line and pass your furniture out the window.”Our students do know how to jump in, without being asked, to form a human conveyor belt to pack a bus or set up a campsite or pick up the other end of a couch. We instill that cooperative spirit every day — in classrooms, through community service, on campus days, and on trips. We must be intentional about maintaining that valuable piece of learning for our children.

What about the way Rummage ties into our sustainability efforts?

Lesley: An important aspect of Rummage has been recycling and re-use. I am sure people will continue their good practices on that front. Once this year’s sale concludes, we will suggest alternative organizations for our community to support with their used items. We have worked with some wonderful nonprofits that collect our unsold merchandise.

What will happen to the sorting center?

Lark: We don’t know yet. Once we are beyond this year’s sale and clean-up we can start thinking about the best use for that space. We are open to suggestions.

Is there anything else you want to add?

Lesley: We need everyone to pitch in this year as we celebrate the many lives Rummage has affected so positively, in so many ways, over its 65 years. Join with us (if you can) to help Rummage retire with a hoot and a holler and a whole lot of fun.