SAN JOSE -- Vanessa Witmer told her sweetheart she'd just be a minute, to wait in the car while she ran through the Junior League of San Jose's rummage sale at the Santa Clara County Fairgrounds on Saturday.

"My poor fiancé. He's been sitting in the car for 45 minutes," the 40-year-old Menlo Park woman said, her arms laden with candle holders and flower vases she bought for 50 cents each to use in their wedding. "I'm on fire now. I'm frantically running around and buying like a maniac."

That's just what the Junior League women like to hear at what they call the "greatest garage sale on Earth." All the proceeds from the biennial event -- and they were expecting to "blow past $100,000" on Saturday -- go to charities in Santa Clara County that help children. About 10,000 people filled the fairgrounds' Expo Hall throughout the day, with the first customer lining up at 2:30 a.m. When the doors opened at 8, she "ran in waving her hands" she was so excited, said Corrine Fabie, one of three chairwomen for the rummage sale.

The doors remained open until 6 p.m., but by 2:30 p.m. only 10 percent of the donated merchandize remained. And that's when the hard-core bargain-basement shopping began.

Popcorn poppers, waffle irons, vaporizers, fondue sets and still more fondue sets -- 50 cents. Vases were three for a dollar. Bags of twine, exercise equipment, holiday decorations, "as-is" TV sets, ski poles, baskets, mismatched glassware -- all steals.

"My dad's like, 'I just got rid of all this crap,'" but there he was with his wife buying more at a preview event, co-chairwoman Cheryl Barker said with a laugh. (Barker's mother picked up a "nice copper bracelet and a nifty jewelry box," she said.)

"We buy our friends' stuff," Fabie said. "My trunk is full of glassware."

By 4 p.m., a volunteer announced over the loudspeaker, "Everything that can fit in a brown bag is $5!"

"We don't want to haul it out of here," said Barker, who racked up 37,000 steps on her pedometer while setting up for the event last Sunday -- and another 7,600 on Saturday.

Some of the best stuff went first -- the antiques, jewelry, bicycles and baby strollers.

Diana and Earl Boggs, of Milpitas -- the couple who erect a pirate ship in their front yard for Halloween each year -- bought a 1970s-era oak dining room set for $95, complete with a table and six chairs and a hutch.

"It's beautiful, and it all matches, which is what we don't have," said Diana Boggs, 57.

The early birds may have found the best merchandise, but the latecomers got the best deals.

"We couldn't bring ourselves to get up at 4 in the morning, so we came down after a leisurely lunch," said Kelli Cree, 40, of Sunnyvale. "The crowds are thinner, and the prices are better. It's definitely worth it."

Her best find at 3:30 p.m? A Tupperware toy -- plastic pieces that lock together in the shape of a dog, just like one she had as a child. "I'm going to reunite him with his friends at my mom's house," she said.

She also grabbed a Dale of Norway wool sweater for $1 and a Mini Boden skirt for her daughter.

Her friend's best find? "A mumu for a dollar!" said Julie Grenier, 41, also of Sunnyvale, holding up the 1960s-style floral dress.

By 4 p.m., the Junior League invited in some of the social service nonprofit agencies it helps. The groups included InnVision and Sunday Friends, which aid the homeless, and Next Door Solutions, which helps battered women.

The league gave the group's clients $50 vouchers to buy whatever else they wanted, saying that the agencies, at the end of the day, could take the rest. The Evergreen Library and "Books for Treats," which hands out books instead of candy at Halloween, hauled off the remaining stacks of books.

Witmer, the woman who left her fiancé in the car, found it difficult to leave at all.

"I sent him a text message five minutes ago saying I'm walking there now," she said. "But I'm not ready."

Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at Twitter.com/juliasulek.