"I definitely have the rummage gene," announced Gayle Payne, a sale staffer for more than a dozen years, as she sorted through bags of linens inside the church's Commons building. As its longtime linens maven, Payne can spot from the lot the finest old lace cloths and embroidered napkins. Still, they go for a song - $5 is a high-end price tag for pretty much everything in linens at a sale that benefits 11 charities. (See "Shopping for a Cause.")
There also are books, shoes, jewelry, clothing (babies', children's, men's, women's) toys, accessories, housewares, furniture, and electronics, with sales overseen by 15 "lieutenants" appointed with almost military precision by Debbie Walker, a transplanted Texan and this year's sale chair.
The preparations have been months in the making, with planning starting just weeks after each annual sale ends. Donations are solicited months ahead, and it takes hundreds of people-hours to receive, sort, and organize.
Despite the heroic attempts at organization, things still get hectic. Wednesday's opening night runs from 6 to 9, and "bag sale" day, on Thursday, is a mere two hours, starting at 10 a.m. That morning, anything and everything that fits into two sizes of bags (small, $3, large, $5) gets carted off, and the tempo is frenetic. The true diehards arrive early and then stand five-deep at the tables. Those who have underestimated their taste for the rummage spoils often return to the lobby to purchase more bags to fill.
Some volunteers have been doing this for decades; others are newbies with good shopping resumés. Even others like 100-year-old Harriet Venzie, carve out specialties. Hers was shoes until the Marlton resident "retired" five years ago. (She continues to collect a carload of items to be delivered to the church.)
Still, she remembers the regulars, like the teacher from Camden who would come to buy warm clothing for her students who had none, and another who came to fill bags for relatives back in Poland.
For Moorestown artist and teacher Lee Renner and her husband, Dan LaLumia, a pilot, the first night of the First Presbyterian sale is date night.
"We've been going for the past several years and now we won't miss it," says Renner, who also frequents yard sales and thrift shops. "For me, there's an allure in elderly things that were part of other people's lives."
The couple have their divide-and-conquer approach, with LaLumia heading straight for the books, and Renner more apt to survey anything with a bit of age, and potential. "I carried off an old spice shelf that I reinvented as a jewelry container," says Renner, whose husband gets the credit for once spotting eight perfect Riedel wine goblets for $5.
About five years ago, after seeing signs for the local rummage sale, Joanne Watson and her husband, Dan, decided to join the fray.
"I shop for my grandchildren now that my own children are grown. I always look for English china and picture frames, and I've found some," says the Moorestown rummager. "My husband goes right to the toys for the grandkids."
Behind the scenes, every sale begins with a tradition that reaches back decades. Standing together, the volunteers join hands just before the shoppers rush in and offer thanks for the abundance they have gathered.
"It's all about our welcoming the stranger with hospitality, and remembering that the real mission of the sale reaches beyond just moving things from one home to another," said Kathryn Hanson, a Mount Laurel veterinarian who chaired the event for 10 years.
For some, the rummage sale is a family affair.
Alex Sewell, 30, whose parents, Vickie and Roy, are longtime rummage crew volunteers, has been helping out for more than a decade.
"I happen to own a Ford truck, so I do a lot of runs picking up rummage items." He also shops the sale, with one of his best finds a mystery item that no one could identify. He eventually realized it was a luggage rack for a Model T Ford - a coup for someone whose passion is restoring antique cars.
After 43 years of working the sale, Joyce Connell, a retired travel agency executive, has a sense of adventure about the offbeat items that tumble out of packages.
This year's early donations included a vintage fur coat, a cut glass vase, antique model cars and trucks, brass candlesticks, and a Minnie Mouse costume, with ears and patent leather Mary Janes.
Susan Masiko of Marlton, who will be working her inaugural rummage gig, has a concern. Assigned to jewelry, she's worried there may be a stampede, given the price of gold these days. "Maybe I should wear armor," she said, sorting through donations.
It is, in fact, possible to make a killing. At least there's precedent: A couple of years ago, one woman bought for $1 a cookie jar studded with garish colored fruit - what everyone agreed was the ugliest item there - and then sold it on eBay for $400. Turns out it was a collectible.
Volunteer Payne knows that when it comes to rummaging, some people come out of need, some out of lust for a bargain, and others for the blood sport of it all.
"But almost nobody leaves empty-handed, and almost everyone has a wonderful time. And that," says Payne, "is a pretty good deal."
The First Presbyterian Church of Moorestown's 95th annual Rummage Sale, at 101 Bridgeboro Rd., will take place Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m. and Thursday from 10 a.m. to noon for a bag sale. Bags cost $3 or $5, depending on size, and can be filled with anything from the sale.