A mirror reflects a portion of the White Elephant Sale warehouse. (Photos by Bonnie Chan)
Anyone who has ever been to the Oakland Museum's White Elephant Sale will probably tell you that it's not just rummage shopping – it's an actual event.
“Shopping” is thrift stores and boutiques. The White Elephant Sale is a 96,000-square-foot warehouse, which is comparable to the size of two football fields. Within those two football fields' worth of square footage, the sale is loosely organized into 19 departments so expansive that hardware, household and garden items are grouped together into a single department called “Hardware Household Garden.”
This weekend, March 2-3, marks the 54th year of the White Elephant Sale, which is organized annually by the nonprofit Oakland Museum Women's Board. The Women's Board was founded in 1955 as a fundraising and support group for what was then the Oakland Museum Association. According to Kathy Griffin, the current Co-Chair of Marketing for the Women's Board, the board organized its first White Elephant Sale in 1959 and made a respectable couple hundred dollars to benefit the Oakland Museum.
The board has continued to organize the sale every year since. For many years, the sale was held at various locations throughout Oakland, including in borrowed storefronts and at the Port of Oakland. But by the 1990s, it became clear that the sale had grown large enough to require its own building. It's now held each year at 333 Lancaster St. near the Oakland Estuary and has ballooned into a sale that the Women's Board rightfully describes as “legendary.”
Here's a non-exhaustive example of what you might find at this weekend's White Elephant Sale:
Cast iron pots and pans, copper fondue sets, crystal wine glasses and goblets, plastic spice racks. A ceramic outdoor fountain featuring a pineapple. Estate-quality furniture, silver and jewelry. Skis from the '70s, massage tables from the '80s, camping equipment, vintage kerosene lanterns, rusty tricycles. A Christmas section with enough paraphernalia to build a chain of ceramic Santas reaching to the North Pole. An entire wall of baseball caps. An adult fairy costume with wings. An enormous floor mirror. An authentic Chinese wedding bed.
According to the White Elephant Sale's website, cars, pianos and a pony have been purchased at the sale in the past.
“I'm so amazed,” said Griffin when I asked her about the pony. “Every year, when I think, 'I'll never see THIS,' I end up seeing it. We definitely get both the ordinary and the unusual. This year we got a whole clown collection.”
I got a preview of the White Elephant Sale this year. Annually, the White Elephant Sale holds a preview sale about a month before the public sale, for those paranoid/eager shoppers who are willing to pay $15-20 admission to get first dibs on items. My partner and I weren't going for anything big – just hoping to maybe replace some of our beat-up pots and pans, maybe happen upon a food processor.
In Hardware Household Garden, we encountered the equivalent of Ali Baba's cave in creamers and serving platters. There were a good handful of pressure cookers, too, but neither of us knew enough about pressure cookers to know what to look for. Finding a pretty decent-looking one, we sought out the counsel of Arlene, a White Elephant Sale volunteer who happened to be passing by.
“My mother swore by one,” Arlene said, “but I don't know anything about them. This one looks good, though.”
“Oh, Revere is one of the vintage high-quality brands,” another volunteer, Barbara, said. “I don't know pressure cookers either, but I know they were a big name in pressure cookers.”
That's one of the most striking things about the White Elephant Sale experience, is how unflaggingly good-natured all of the volunteers are. The White Elephant Sale relies on a corps of 1,000 volunteers to help sort, organize and price items, which are donated year-round by people in the community. Volunteers are also the people who direct parking and donation drop-offs, who write up receipts for items in each department, who run the checkout and who deal with essentially anything that might arise when hundreds of people descend upon a warehouse sale.
The White Elephant Sale is the Women's Board's only fundraising activity – for good reason, as it is truly a year-round endeavor. After the frenzy of the annual sale is over, nearly all remaining items are sorted and donated to local nonprofits and charities, which, according to Griffin, takes a considerable amount of paperwork and logistics. Then, over the course of a year, donations begin trickling in to fill the warehouse anew. Volunteers sort donations as they're received and drivers are paid to pick up donations throughout the year.
All told, the White Elephant Sale has raised $18 million for the Oakland Museum since that first sale. Last year, the sale netted an unprecedented $1.8 million.
Griffin said that the sale benefits everyone involved: “Shoppers feel good because they get good deals. Donors get another way to contribute to the museum; sometimes, with arts organizations, it's hard to know how to help outside of just writing a check – donating to the White Elephant Sale is a great way to help. And volunteers get to feel good because they're doing amazing work.”
Personally, I left the sale with a whole collection of used pots and pans, a gleaming copper fondue pot and a pair of sawhorses that I decided would make a great base for an outdoor work table. Mind you, I had never once considered buying a pair of sawhorses until I saw these for $5 apiece. My partner decided to go with the vintage Revere pressure cooker, as well as something called a twin pan that looked like a cross between a bed warmer and a panini press. Neither of us knew what it was, but he decided that he needed it.
So here we are: Richer in kitchenware and sawhorses, richer for having seen an authentic Chinese wedding bed and richer for having supported our beloved local museum.
Tips from Griffin for how to best experience the White Elephant Sale:
Arrive early. Wear warm clothes and comfortable shoes. If you can, carpool or take BART or public transportation. The White Elephant Sale runs a free shuttle to and from the Fruitvale BART station.
If You Go
What: Oakland Museum Women's Board White Elephant Sale
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 2 and Sunday, March 3
Where: 333 Lancaster St., Oakland (Free shuttle provided from Fruitvale BART station)
Cost: FREE admission
Phone: (510) 536-6800
More info: http://whiteelephantsale.org
Upcoming elsewhere in Oakland:
The venerable Oakland-based bike nonprofit Cycles of Change is raising funds to keep its Bike-Go-Round program up and running. To date, the Bike-Go-Round has donated more than 750 bikes to low-income Oaklanders to promote access to self-reliant, inexpensive transportation.
On Saturday, March 2, Cycles of Change is hosting a Bike-Go-Round Alleykitten Race fundraiser – similar to bike messengers' somewhat-kinda-legal urban alleycat races, but friendly, fun and welcoming of all ages and skill levels! Prizes for speediest, slowest and best costume.
The event runs 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.; start location at Mosswood Park (Broadway and W. MacArthur Blvd.). Cost: $5-20 sliding scale donation to enter the race.
There's also a Bike-Go-Round Alleykitten Race after-party from 2 to 4 p.m. at LOL (Liberating Ourselves Locally), 1234 23rd Ave. at International Blvd. FREE for Alleykitten Race participants, $5-10 sliding scale requested for everyone else. No one turned away for lack of funds.
Homestead Apothecary is celebrating its grand opening tomorrow! Get the backstory here and stop by Temescal Alley on your First Friday/Art Murmur rounds to help this new small business celebrate with some herb-infused cocktails.
Saturday, March 2, 7 to 9 p.m., 486 49th St.; FREE.
Oakland Social is a weekly arts and culture column devoted to upcoming events, new places, and narratives about going out in Oakland. Have ideas for what to cover? Contact email@example.com.