Several thousand shoppers weaving throughout Winnetka Congregational Church’s Rummage Sale is usually a regular sight each spring.
But during the ongoing pandemic, it’s almost unimaginable.
With uncertainty about what lies ahead, the church has again canceled its upcoming hit sale in May, said Jane Trueheart Huels, Rummage Sale co-chairperson.
“This will be the third sale we have now canceled,” Trueheart Huels said. “We had no sales in 2020. … There is so much uncertainty still. We couldn’t make that commitment for a public sale this May, especially because of the spaces we use; we are restricted.”
Trueheart Huels runs the sales alongside co-chairwomen Eileen Baumgarten and Jennifer Cohen. Each year, they host two major sales: one a weekend-long event in May and the other a one-day sale in October.
According to its website, the rummage sales began in 1901 and have become a “Winnetka tradition,” raising millions of dollars to benefit 45 social service agencies in Chicagoland, providing prevention, crisis and recovery services to underserved people.
Like many organizations, the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the church and its events. The trio explained how it has affected their operation — an operation that went from years of bustling business to briefly nonexistent at one point.
When the pandemic was declared in March 2020, the church was already underway with preparations for the May sale, but completely shutdown its rummage department until further notice.
“We stayed out of the building for three months and didn’t accept any donations,” Trueheart Huels said, adding they still are not accepting the community’s contributions during the pandemic for safety reasons.
The inventory of donated goods — 25 different departments worth — sat for months in storage last spring into the early summer.
By June, the women returned to the storage and staged some furniture pieces for online sales. They weren’t sure how it would go, but were surprised of the successful outcome.
“It’s all kind of a blur,” Cohen said. “Once we used the chapel for the online furniture sale, we went department by department and hosted mini sales after. Once we saw that we could sell and people were interested, we started hosting them every two weeks.”
They first accepted 10 registered shoppers with designated time slots for each pop-up sale, Baumgarten said. Then they bumped it up to 15 registrations with a large enough room to allow for social distancing.
Now after the decision to cancel the big sale, the group is continuing to host pop-up sales (announced through its mailing list) with required registrations. Although they once greeted thousands of shoppers to their space, they are grateful to still be active with smaller events, they reiterated.
As far as the future goes for large-scale rummage sales, the women are hopeful.
Huels believes the community is invested and will return to find their hidden treasures.
“It was very stressful at the beginning of the shutdown. We had to furlough people who helped us move furniture for years,” she said. “Now when we need help, these people show up for us. It’s not just church people who are invested in rummage. When we held pop-ups, the community would show up; they need their rummage fix.”
Cohen thinks a large sale is in the cards, as well.
“I think we will have some bigger rummage sale,” she said. “Rummage is great in so many ways. It builds camaraderie among the community, and it serves a great cause.”
Baumgarten looks forward to helping the agencies they previously served.
“We have close connection with the people who we have worked with throughout the years at the agencies,” she said. “We hope to be able to continue to give to them. … But we don’t exactly know if it will ever be back to what it was before.”
Megan Bernard is a co-founder and the managing editor who directs day-to-day journalism of The Record. Megan enjoys writing about restaurants, entertainment and education and is an established human-interest reporter.