ROCKPORT, Texas — A long-running thrift store nearly offered even more bang for your buck.

A hand grenade was found inside a purse donated to Castaways Thrift Store a while back.

Police, sheriff's deputies and a bomb squad responded.

The grenade was a dud, but the purse sold for a few bucks to help the area.

Despite being one of the worst items donated, store volunteers say it still benefited the needy.

The store's reputation for offering new stuff each day draws a daily bargain-shopping onslaught that has kept five churches hopping for nearly 40 years. Secondhand sales have provided millions for their ministries, and become a lifeline for more than 30 Aransas County nonprofits by collectively generating about $3 million in recent years for them.

"Each day the shop is run by a different troupe," said Rosy Dunn, a retired teacher, now Castaways chairman. "It's wonderful that five religious groups come together to promote good will and serve the poor. The money we generate is amazing."

Last year the store logged $718,387 in sales, paid about $60,000 in sales tax and made $189,000 in donations to programs that benefit children, elderly, the poor and area volunteer fire and emergency services. That doesn't include about $25,000 in clothing given to Rockport-Fulton's Good Samaritans, Inc., or $6,000 in cash each to it and the Aransas County Council on Aging during the Coastal Bend Day of Giving, Dunn said.

Last year Castaways provided clothes to 1,892 clients of Good Samaritans, said Ken McGee, the assistance agency's 2011 chairman.

"If Castaways were selling stuff at real prices, they would be a multimillion-dollar operation," McGee said. "The amount of money they plow back into this economy is substantial."

The largest amount the store donated last year was $35,000 to Aransas County Medical Emergency Services, Inc., a nonprofit ambulance service that responds to about 3,000 calls annually.

"They have helped us purchase ambulances and essential equipment," said Patricia Arnold, personnel director for the service. "Without them there every year for us, we couldn't do half what we do."

The secret to Castaways' success: Everything that doesn't sell by the end of the month gets a half-off price slash; then if not sold it goes out the back door and onto a Salvation Army truck.

"We used to put it out by the trash bin and let people have a free-for-all," Dunn said. "But folks started fighting over it."

Before the doors open at 9 a.m. daily, the 400 block of North Church Street fills with vehicles of anxious shoppers.

After turning the latch, workers know to get behind the counter as buyers bolt for boxes piled with stuff and prowl through carts not yet unloaded onto shelving or racks.

Rose Ferguson, 71, has shopped there several days weekly for decades, she said.

"I'm usually first in line," Ferguson said. "I've got 30 grandkids and about 15 great-grands, and I collect Indians, chickens, flower pots ... Oh just every day brings another treasure."

Ann Krumm made her husband take her early Wednesday for a small black purse she saw the day before.

"She threatened me with problems," the Tyler native's husband said. "Doesn't take much to make her happy through — a $5.41 purse to put on the closet shelf with 20 others."

Castaways has swelled beyond its space capacity six times, and again needs a larger building.

It began in 1972 with St. Peter's Episcopal Church ladies organizing weekend rummage sales.

They grew.

In a few weeks the ladies linked with other women of faith, forming Christian Women of Aransas County, and setting up shop on Fridays at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

Climbing sales forced a move to First United Methodist Church. But packing all the goods each week to make room for Sunday school led them by August 1974 to rent a building at the corner of Magnolia and Concho streets, to open Castaway's consignment shop.

In 1976, women from First Presbyterian Church of Rockport wanted in on the action, and began selling through the shop.

It was a year later that the Peace Lutheran Church Women's Missionary League joined forces and Castaways moved to 2001 Concho St. to open six days a week. Five years later it was incorporated and moved to its present location.

One day each week volunteers from each of the five churches run the store.

"It's very tiresome," said Pat Lister, 79, who first volunteered in 1976, and was a Castaways board member twice representing the Methodist church. "There's a truly rewarding feeling, and we have a lot of laughs, because people buy anything if they've never seen it before."

All donations get color-coded tags according to the church that donors designate for the proceeds. Items not designated for a church are processed as a "store/community" sales item, which helps generate funds for the nonprofits. There is 10 percent of all sales that goes to the store for operating costs, and another 5 percent is set aside for a new building fund.

At the end of the year, all store profits are donated to the county nonprofits.

The youngest volunteer is 58, and many work into their 80s.

"Our winter visitors spread the word all over the U.S.," said Carl McKay, 73, who has volunteered 14 years alongside members of Peace Lutheran Church. "They buy what they need when here; then when they leave, they donate it all back."

Not Claude Pence, 77.

He's in the store daily digging for bargain items to sell for a profit at his flea market booth. He nabbed a china napkin holder for $2 last week, and pushed out a chrome clothing rack for $5.

Comment on this story

"I can usually double or triple my money," Pence said. "And I could never have bought a rack like this elsewhere."

Winter Texan Harvey Carlisle, 76, used to haul pickup loads of winter coats and heavy clothing back to Minnesota, he said. It was a Fischer-Price Toys' kiddie potty for $2 that caught his eye most recently. It still had batteries in it that sound a buzzer when a tot is successful, he boasted.

"The batteries cost more than $2," Carlisle snickered. "I've got two grandkids who need some recognition."

Information from: Corpus Christi Caller-Times,