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White Elephant Sale Next Week Benefits Oakland Museum
Donors Can Shop This Week

By Steven Finacom
Wednesday February 23, 2011 - 02:06:00 PM
Items from women's hats, to wall art, stuffed animals, ceramic pigs, unusual fish, and furniture await in the White Elephant Sale warehouse on the Oakland Estuary.
Steven Finacom
Items from women's hats, to wall art, stuffed animals, ceramic pigs, unusual fish, and furniture await in the White Elephant Sale warehouse on the Oakland Estuary.

You would think a 52-year-old garage sale might have run out of things to sell. But the White Elephant Sale (WES) keeps restocking and plugging along, annually offering tens of thousands of objects, from odd to ordinary, in the cause of raising money (some sixteen million, so far) to benefit the programs of the Oakland Museum of California. 

The big White Elephant Sale—open to the entire public, and free—is on the weekend of March 5-6, from 10 am to 4 pm each day. It’s then that the WES waterfront warehouse in Oakland, run by the Oakland Museum Women’s Board, will be thronged with thousands of bargain and curiosity seekers. 

But if you want to go early, with smaller crowds, this week includes the last donation days. Through Saturday, February 26, 2011, if you go between 10 am and 2 pm and make a donation of goods worth at least $50 (in your estimation) per individual, you get a free pass to shop for that day. 

Be sure to check the website in advance and look over the list of items that are not acceptable as donations. It’s quite extensive, since the WES doesn’t want to end up with your used underwear or dysfunctional computer to dispose of at their expense. Remember, you’re making a donation of re-sellable items to a non-profit cause, not unloading pure junk. 

How does the White Elephant Sale work? I did a long account of it in the Planet most recently in 2009. 

I don’t mean to repeat every detail, but here’s a summary. 

The sale operates like a rummage or garage sale but on a mammoth and highly efficient scale. The warehouse encompasses nearly 100,000 square feet, and holds tens of thousands of items, all individually priced. Scores of white-coated volunteers (many from Berkeley) are on duty. 

All the items for sale are donations, so the type of merchandise is dependent on the donors. They may range from a fine china service, to garden tools, clothing, bicycles, books, coats, and original artwork. But if something you want isn’t there, it’s simply because nobody donated that item this year; this isn’t a department store. 

You can probably buy a blender, a bear (stuffed, ceramic, wooden), a bed frame, a basket, a backgammon set, a bud vase, a blanket, a butter knife… 

My experience is that the donations are often items that are no longer in fashion, but still useful, or at least entertaining. If you specialize in a certain sort of collecting, or have an open mind about what’s useable as opposed to simply what’s trendy, or just want to get some stuff cheap, the WES can be a productive hunting ground. 

I know people who do much of their annual clothing shopping at the WES, as well as others who carefully sort through certain sections for their own personal collections, or for items that they then resell on E-Bay. 

Most of the items for sale are indeed “used”, but the WES volunteers cull the contributions. They’re not going to sell you torn and dirty clothing, or a broken waffle iron, for instance. 

And most things are genuinely “priced to sell”, as they say. Paperback books for 50 cents and hardcover for a dollar or two, items of clothing for a few dollars, very credible original artworks for $10 or $25 or $100, and so on. 

The sale building is divided into seventeen departments including clothing (men / women); toys; furniture; music / camera; art; books; sports; electrical (from lampshades to appliances); and three divisions of household miscellaneous—boutique, bric-a-brac, and house wares. 

Each department is run by its own volunteer team and has its own organization, habits, and idiosyncrasies. For what it’s worth, in my view there are some departments that offer consistent great bargains (particularly Books and Bric-a-Brac and House wares) others where you can find many very good items at a “steal” while some selections are higher priced, and a few departments that have tended towards considerably higher pricing over the years. 

It is not unknown these days to see something in the furniture section with a four-figure price tag, and some of the prices there compare, in my view, to thrift store or even antique shop prices. 

A sorting department distributes incoming donations to the individual departments where items are priced and put out for display. 

This can make for some unusual finds and comparison shopping. Depending on who did the sorting, multiple versions of the same piece of glassware, for instance, might end up in Bric-a-Brac priced perhaps at $3, House wares for $5, and Boutique (higher end decorative items) for $8 or $10. 

Generally, though, donations seem to go where they sensibly “belong”. And the selection is vast. In Bric-A-Brac there’s not just a shelf of ceramic animal figurines. There’s a ceramic duck section, a ceramic rabbit section, a ceramic bear section, next to items in blue glass, items in green glass, items in red glass, across from a glass ashtry section next to Halloween decorations next to Easter decorations…you get the idea. 

On donation days, you get your purchases wrapped up by department, then pay at a central station. There’s a 10% premium for shopping on those days. On the big sale days you pay at each department, then store your items at a central “checkstand” before moving on. 

The WES warehouse is at 333 Lancaster Street in Oakland. To get there by car, take 880 south from Berkeley, and get off at the Fruitvale exit. At the bottom of the short off ramp make a sharp right turn (and slow down before then!) and head straight ahead three blocks on Derby Street. 

At the end, the Oakland Estuary will be in front of you, the Cal Crew Boathouse will be on your right, and the WES building—that enormous, block-long, gray structure fronting on Glascock Street—is on your left. 

Parking is on the street, and will be jammed on the day of the sale (it’s pretty packed on the donation days, too). And in this area there are plenty of industrial and craft businesses and many blocks without standard sidewalks and curb cuts. Look at signage carefully before parking, and don’t block someone’s driveway or gate. 

During the March Sale there’s also a free shuttle from the Fruitvale BART station. 

You cannot bring food, backpacks, big bags, or boxes into the building on any of the sale days. 

The WES website with more details is