Press Releases

Donate to the White Elephant Sale for a Sneak Peek

By Steven Finacom Special to the Planet
Wednesday February 25, 2009 - 08:05:00 PM

It’s White Elephant Sale season again. The huge, weeks-long fundraising event sponsored by the Oakland Museum Women’s Board turns 50 years this year, and is as big, varied, and interesting as ever. 

What’s the White Elephant Sale? If you haven’t heard, or been, it’s essentially a department store-sized garage sale of tens of thousands of donated items, organized into more than 20 sections, from toys to electrical to clothing, furniture, art and bric-a-brac. 

When it began in 1959, the White Elephant Sale grossed $500. Since then it has burgeoned, moved from site to site, and finally settled into a block-square warehouse where volunteers work year-round processing donations for the big February and March sales. 

Whether you’re shopping entirely for fun, or following thrifty impulses in these recessionary times, the White Elephant Sale (WES) is worth a visit. 

A selective shopper could easily furnish an apartment here, from kitchen chopping blocks to bedroom linens, armchairs, art, and alarm clocks. Collectors can indulge their specialty interests, from stuffed animals, to silverware, to vintage Christmas ornaments.  

Last weekend I paused by one wall of shelves containing just coffee mugs in the extensive household wares section. Are you named Marty, Larry, Tony, Chris, Don, Carolyn? There’s a mug waiting at the WES with your name on it. 

While thousands show up at the weekend Preview Sale in early February, and the regular sale—the weekend of March 7 and 8, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. this year—the ongoing donation period is a good alternative time to go and shop. 

The “donor” shopping days have small crowds in comparison with the big sale days, presenting the opportunity to spot something that has just come in and been priced before anyone else buys it. 

Donation days for the rest of February are just through Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.  

The donation process is simple. You bring at least $50 worth of contributions per person. If your contributions pass muster, you’re issued a gift tag good for a visit.  

While the gatekeepers don’t scrutinize your contributions like suspicious Customs agents, they are looking for reasonable, re-sellable contributions. If you show up with just a couple of tattered paperback books or T-shirts, I suspect you’d be turned away.  

On donation days, instead of paying at each department, you take your selections to its counter, where they’re totaled up, bagged and tagged with your name and the price.  

You can leave those items at a self-serve shelf area near the exits and go on to other sections. When you’re ready to leave central cashiers total all your tags together. You pay once, and a 10 percent premium is added to your total for the privilege of shopping early. 

Ffity years of sales have raised over 13 million dollars that the Oakland Museum Women’s Board has donated for museum programs, exhibits, and facilities. 

Many people go to just browse for interesting things. Others are serious thrift shoppers. Two friends buy many of their clothes for the year at the WES. Others annually augment their book collections. A couple of journalists I know hunt for the ugliest objects. (This year, there’s a fiber optic fairy figure lamp with moving wings that may be the most garish. Last year, my favorite was a ceramic clock dripping with cherubs.) 

Some shopping suggestions: 

• If you have the time, plan at least two visits; the warehouse is so vast and the selection so varied that after a couple of hours of browsing you’ll be weary and glazed.  

• Try to finish and head for the check-out by about 1:30 p.m. on a donation day. After that time the line starts to build, and even though it moves efficiently, if you shop until 2:00, you probably won’t make it out the door until well after the hour. 

• During the big main sale, it’s sensible to “impulse buy,” securing an interesting item that may well be snatched up moments later in the teeming mass of shoppers. During the donation days you can be a little more discriminating; don’t necessarily grab that velvet Elvis painting and have it wrapped up until you check out other departments for more, shall we say, useful items. 

• Eat and use the bathroom before going. There’s no food or drink allowed inside, and only outdoor port-a-potties are provided for shoppers. 

• Bring the largest personal vehicle you have access to. Who knows if you’ll have to try to cram a carpet, chair, or six boxes of books into it on the way home? 

• Try to go in twos, if possible (and remember, at least $50 in donations per person, not per group). You can cover more ground, and one can wait with the purchases while the other gets the car.  

• No children are allowed in on donation days. 

• Finally, when planning your donations, remember there’s a long list of donations the WES doesn’t accept, mainly hazardous items and things they know they couldn’t even give away, like back issues of popular magazines. Check the detailed and lengthy list on their website before you go, so you won’t have to take your debatable treasures back home. For example, TV’s, microwave ovens, TV stands, cell phones, extension cords and non-vintage Christmas lights, and “office furniture of any sort” are not accepted. 

Ammunition and firearms (including toy guns), are forbidden, along with toilet seats, “disassembled looms,” most types of exercise machines, “dining room tables without matching chairs,” “home recorded” video cassettes, Beta video tapes, 8-Track tapes, automobile batteries, tire chains, matches, “paint of any kind,” and everyone’s least favorite garage sale finds like “soiled or torn articles of clothing,” “opened cosmetics,” “used underwear” and “toxic materials.”  

Also, absolutely no shag rugs, even in great condition. It’s good to see there are some tastes even the WES can’t stomach.