Rummaging around again

Rummage-A-Rama! revives once-popular State Fair Park event

Feb. 7, 2012

West Allis - Tim Gill set out to restore a bit of southeastern Wisconsin history when he revived a popular State Fair Park rummage sale known for decades as the place to go for antiques, collectibles and kitsch.

In its heyday, it was known as Rummage-O-Rama, and, to Gill, it was "an icon" that grew steadily until modern times and technology stunted its continued growth.

"They were running 13 shows a year at their peak, but that was in the days before the Internet. That was before the big-box stores. That was before eBay and Craigslist. It was the place to go for bargains and deals," said Gill, who resurrected the sale in 2009 as Rummage-A-Rama!

What's in a name

Again, that's Rummage-A-Rama! - with an "a" and an exclamation point.

It's a purposeful departure from the original show name- and was the only available domain name available - after Gill bought naming rights for the sale from long-time operators, Wally and Judy Rasner, who bought the show from founders by John and Jan Wilke.

The original show started in 1970 as the "Art, Craft and Antique Fair," and grew into an eclectic collection of new and used items resembling a giant rummage sale - hence the name.

By the time Gill was kid growing up on the northwest side of Milwaukee, the sale filled the North and South Exhibit Halls at State Fair Park.

Gill never got to go to the sale; it shut down in 2002 when the halls were cleared out to make room for the Wisconsin Expo Center. But, like so many in the metro Milwaukee area, he knew the name well enough to recognize it while working concessions at State Fair Park.

"I'd heard people saying, 'It's nothing like what Rummage-O-Rama was. What happened to Rummage-O-Rama?' And I'd ask them , 'What made it so special? Why was it unique? What do you miss about it?' " said Gill, 26, of West Allis.

The stuff that sells

If it was anything like the new show, Jana Du Charme said it was definitely more than the vintage beer mugs, comic books and hard-to-find toys.

As a third generation antique dealer, Du Charme said there's a sense of community, of family among the dealers that only comes from working shows.

And she has never seen one quite like Rummage-A-Rama!.

"You can find anything there," said Du Charme, 30, of Waukesha. "Dinky toys from the 1950s. Matchbox cars. Depression glass. That long lost cast-iron pan that your grandma had. Vintage video games that, like 10 years ago, wouldn't have been so old, like GameBoys my brother got when he was little."

Du Charme, whose family owns an antique store in Prairie du Chien, specializes in pre-1960s toys and anything made of paper - comics books, wills, letterhead, maps, even vintage cereal boxes, which joined her collection after her mom and Rummage-A-Rama! partner, Ronna Du Charme, pulled some out of her stash on a shelf in the basement.

And business, even for those niche items like old Wheaties boxes, has been good.

Regrowing the show

When it returned in 2009, the show had maybe 40 or 50 vendors, certainly not enough to fill the Wisconsin Products Pavilion, where the revived show is now primarily based.

"The building holds 150 spaces, and (at first) we had to stretch it out to make it half full," Gill said.

Over the last two years, Gill said he has consistently booked more than 100 vendors. At a recent pre-Christmas show, he had 109 booths, including 30 vendors who never participated in the show before.

Two of those belong to Du Charme, who believes the show has grown partly because it makes vendors money but also because of Gill, who recently opened a show by playing an AC/DC anthem to energize the sellers.

"We were just like, 'You've got to be kidding me. This is awesome!' " Du Charme said.

That kind of energy is important to Gill, who offers a raffle for a free booth and coupons for coffee and donuts at each show. He even tries to bring an element of fun, like that AC/DC number, to mundane necessities like morning announcements, a tradition the Wilkes started to welcome new vendors, warn sellers to stay out of the aisles and remind them not to pack up before the sale is officially over.

At his very first show, Gill even included a message from the Rasners, a throwback for the skeptical old-timers who weren't quite sure about the new kid on the Rummage-O-Rama block.

"It really held a lot of weight, because I think people were a little bit skeptical about whether this was legit or not," Gill said.

"Well, whatever Tim is doing, it's working," Du Charme said.

Expanding to elsewhere

And working well enough to not only have re-established the sale at State Fair Park, but also well enough to convince Josh McCutcheon to take the franchise to West Bend.

McCutcheon started as a vendor with Gill's new show and was so impressed with his approach that he asked to expand to the Washington County.

"It's something that I've always kind of wanted to do," said McCutcheon, of West Bend.

So far, he has hosted two shows and plans another for March at Washington County Fair Park.

It's an opportunity Gill didn't expect, but one that he has embraced, especially because he doesn't see the State Fair show expanding into the cavernous Expo Center quite yet - even if there are a few hundred people waiting at the door as AC/DC rocks out during the last few morning announcements.

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