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A done deal

Bargain hunters who haunted the annual Junior League rummage sale will have to look elsewhere after this year.

Published October 3, 2003

DOWNTOWN - Bargain shopper Carol Ballmann gasped as soon as she found out. She had to sit down.

"Is it true?" she asked. "I can't believe it. This is the worst news."

After 40 years of running the Trinkets & Treasures Thrift Sale, the Junior League of Tampa is calling it quits. The final event will be held Saturday, Oct. 11, at the Tampa Convention Center.

Ballmann isn't the only person mourning.

The sale has become a one-day bargain shopper's paradise where a Pottery Barn baby crib goes for $15, a DKNY suit for $10 and a Jet Ski with trailer for $500.

Shoppers arrive early - as in the night before - and pass the hours swapping stories of conquests past. Many women wear leotards to try on second-hand jeans in the aisles. They know to expect good stuff from the closets of Junior Leaguers.

"It is our signature," said Junior League president Lisa Andrews, a travel agency manager in South Tampa.

For decades, Junior Leaguers basked in the sale's glory.

It made oodles of money for the poor, the mission of the 78-year-old group.

In the early days, members ferried poor children to City Hall, where a dentist treated them for free. Today, they fill knapsacks with school supplies and give grants up to $2,500 to local children and women's groups. They funded an art awareness program at PACE Center for Girls and helped create a computer lab at Tampa Crossroads, a women's residential program.

But slowly, no one can pinpoint when, the sale lost its luster.

The event, which used to bring in up to $75,000 net, slipped into the red. It cost a lot to lease the Tampa Convention Center and rent tables. And after Sept. 11, the group had to hire more security.

Time also became an issue.

It's not just one day of work. "It takes a lot of woman power," Andrews said.

Two Saturdays a month from February to May the league had to staff a warehouse on N Florida Avenue, near downtown, so people could drop off their merchandise. Each member is required to donate $85 worth of stuff a year.

In June, volunteers start sorting and boxing donations. Then, the two days before the sale, members haul 1,500 boxes, tons of racks and about two trucks full of furniture to the convention center.

On sale day, every Junior Leaguer - about 500 women - works.

Back in the 1960s, the sales were simpler. Most members didn't work. Or they were teachers who had summers off. They packed all August to prepare for the fall sale.

But today, 80 percent of the members hold jobs. Many take vacation days to haul and box donations.

Over time, the sale also lost its focus.

The sale began as a way to help the less fortunate. But in recent years, more and more consignment shop owners lined up, snagging prime merchandise to resell in their stores at higher prices.

"Some of the people who really need the items aren't getting them," said Susan Thompson, president elect.

At annual meetings, the thrift sale always came up. What are we going to do with it?

This year, the league had an out.

Trinkets & Treasures was turning 40, and in the Junior League world, when you reach age 40, you "retire." You pay less in dues and don't have to do as much work.

"It is a perfect send off," said Andrews, the president.

* * *

The Junior League of Tampa, headquartered on Davis Islands, didn't always have a thrift sale.

In the beginning, it ran a thrift store on N Franklin Street and later another on Tampa Street. But staffing was a problem. "There were never enough girls who wanted tedious and dusty work for their League job," stated a 1960 league newsletter.

Ruthanne McLean of South Tampa and Cissy Pittman, who now lives on a farm near Valdosta, Ga., came up with the thrift sale idea.

It was held in 1963 over three days, at the former fairgrounds on N Boulevard.

"Rummage Galore!" screamed the signs. Billboard advertising was free. Then, at 8:30 a.m., the doors parted and in rushed "a river of people," remembers McLean.

The first sale raked in $7,000 - more than a year's worth of thrift store profits.

Despite its success, the sale was a lot of work from the beginning. "Working on the thrift sale, I certainly burned my candle at both ends," Pittman was quoting saying in a newsletter.

The following year, the league shrunk the sale to one day.

* * *

Leaguers say they will continue to give clothes and items to local charities, said Thompson, president-elect.

"If they truly need it, they will get it," said Thompson, a CPA with two kids.

The leagues' six-member research and development team has come up with several ideas to replace the sale. The most promising: a holiday mart, a three-day makeshift shopping mall at a local venue featuring national and local vendors. Leaguers might host a candy cane corner or a tea room. They also might invite a children's book author or organize a Santa picture-taking stand.

Money will be made from vendors fees, admission, food and picture sales. Tons of Junior League volunteers will be needed.

The league wants to hold the mart before Halloween, perhaps starting in 2004. Expect Junior Leaguers in Santa hats.

"The idea is that people can get their holiday shopping done early," Thompson said.

Members hope the Trinkets & Treasures sale exits with a bang. There's already a record amount of furniture at the N Florida warehouse. Other items: an antique pool table, a boat trailer, lots of children's toys and a dancing James Brown that sings "I feel good!"

For longtime members, the last sale is nostalgic.

"I'm sad to see the sale end," said McLean. "But it is time to move on. New blood and new ideas are good."

For longtime shoppers, like Ballmann, letting go is harder. What will she do next year? "Have withdrawals."

If you go

The final Trinkets & Treasures Thrift Sale will be 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 11, at the Tampa Convention Center. Admission is free. Cash, Mastercard or Visa accepted. No checks. Proceeds benefit charitable projects of the Junior League of Tampa. For information, call 254-1734.

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