Oakland Museum’s White Elephant Sale

Written by:
Renata Polt
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Books, new and used, are among the thousands of items at the White Elephant Sale
Photo courtesy of the Oakland Museum

Shopping Safari: The Oakland Museum’s White Elephant Sale

Sale of donated items to benefit the Oakland Museum
Sponsored by the Oakland Museum Women’s Board
Lancaster Street warehouse, 333 Lancaster, Oakland, Calif.
March 3 and 4, 2012

By half an hour before opening time, all the parking places within a mile of the White Elephant Sale preview on Jan. 29 were already taken, and the line at the door snaked down the street. It was the hotly awaited annual event, and promptly at 10 a.m., the crowd rushed to their favorite departments — there are 17 — in the chilly 36,000 square foot Oakland warehouse where the sale takes place.

And that was only the preview. The sale proper takes place on March 3 and 4, and admission is free. For the preview, shoppers are charged $15 in advance, or $20 at the door. For the preview, some 2,000 tickets were sold in advance; who knows how many more people paid the $20 onsite.

The White Elephant Sale — WES, to its fans and organizers — is now in its 53rd year, though it hasn’t been located in the Lancaster Street warehouse, which the Oakland Museum owns outright, all that time. The last location was on Hegenberger Road; others preceded that.

Some shoppers, feverish to score a cashmere sweater or an antique bookcase, may not realize the sale’s purpose, which is to provide funds for the museum. Last year, $1.6 million was raised. This year — who knows? One volunteer I know told me that donations surpassed anything he’d seen in the past.

And people do donate, sometimes a box of dishes or a vintage dress, sometimes a whole estate. Businesses donate batches of stuff: this year, a business that closed donated shelving and art works. The museum’s van makes pickups all year long. More on that later.

But for the avid shopper out to score a bargain, the sale’s higher purpose may be of secondary importance. Cashmere sweater? Antique bookcase? How about sapphire ring? Best-selling book? Food processor? Cradle? Set of crystal wine glasses? The sale’s departments range from books and music through men’s clothes, women’s clothes, shoes, art, furniture, electrical, jewelry, sporting goods, tools… a map that shoppers pick up at the entrance lays them all out.

The sale is managed by the museum’s Women’s Board, a group of some 100, many of whom also volunteer at the sale. Sheri Guthrie, the board’s president, has worked as a cashier and in the children’s department, among other tasks. Many of the museum staff also come down: last year the director came to help out in the children’s department (adorable clothes, many of them brand new; children’s furniture; toys, though, are in the toy department).

The bulk of the work is performed by volunteers, over 900 of them. Volunteers are encouraged to put in at least five hours a week all through the year — the aim is to discourage shoppers manqués who are there just to case the goodies before the public gets a chance to. The volunteers, in addition to standing on their feet all day selling the wares on sale days, also sort the donations, sewing on buttons, ironing, starching and mending table cloths, polishing silver, checking out electrical gadgets. Sets of buttons are hand-sewn onto cards. Knitting yarn is bagged and labeled: wool, synthetic. Board president Sheri Guthrie has taken all the children’s socks and undies home to wash and sort. The volunteers at the sale — most of them women, though there are plenty of men in departments such as sporting goods, electrical, furniture, books, and others — wear white men’s shirts and badges. Many are elderly. Some use canes. “You get kinda hooked,” says Guthrie.

Some donations, of course, are unusable. Dirty or damaged stuff isn’t welcome. “You can’t have it be like Goodwill,” says Guthrie. What’s rejected is recycled — the Board has a long list of organizations that take the recycled goods. And the WES discourages donations of unsalable stuff: no ripped or stained clothing (except vintage); no mattresses, office furniture, tents, skis, or guns, including toy guns. No National Geographics or Sunsets.

A complete list of unacceptable items can be found on the sale’s website, which also gives the warehouse’s address, hours, directions, and other vital information. On sale days, a shuttle runs from the Fruitvale BART station; parking, as I discovered, is tricky.

As for me, I always go to the preview; I always find treasures. Here are some examples from recent years: a set of twelve brand-new place mats ($12); an Isaac Mizrahi (for Target — shhh!) vest ($8); replacement dinner dishes for my Dansk set ($1 each); fancy soaps, brand new, of course (50¢ to $1 each); two hand-knit sweaters ($10 each); a silver necklace with lots of little charms hanging from it, Guatemalan, I think ($30); a hand-woven silk scarf ($6); a Dust Buster ($8) — unfortunately it pooped out after a few months. But I’m no match for the people whose purchases of dining room sets or giant candelabra or antique armoires are wheeled out on dollies.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll learn the not-very-well-kept secret of true WES aficianodos: on Tuesdays through Saturdays — through Feb. 25 this year, plus Monday, Feb. 20 — between the preview sale and the regular sale weekend — shoppers who bring a bag of donations valued at $50 or more get in to shop. Newly donated merchandise is always being put out by the trusty volunteers. Hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. weekdays and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.

These “guest shopping” days are not such a big secret that you’ll have the place all to yourself, but the throngs that make the jewelry counters and the housewares department (Revereware pans! Descoware!) seem like the New York subway at rush hour are absent. It’s worth the 10 percent surcharge added to the price of that vintage typewriter or Eileen Fisher jacket.

Click on whiteelephantsale.org for the address and directions. The number to arrange for donation pickups is (510) 839-5919.

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