The Oakland Museum's White Elephant Sale Is This Weekend!

Steven Finacom
Friday March 06, 2015 - 04:28:00 PM
Steven Finacom
Steven Finacom
Steven Finacom
Steven Finacom
Steven Finacom

Imagine taking the total moveable contents of scores of Bay Area houses—everything from bed linens to toys to garden tools to artwork from the walls—packing everything in shipping containers for 20 or 30 years, and then spreading them out in a block square warehouse for sale at pennies on the dollar in one grand, two day, event open to all.

That’s essentially the Oakland Museum White Elephant Sale, which takes place this weekend, March 7 and 8, 2015 from 10 to 4 each day.

The WES corrals and collects discarded but still re-useable objects of consumer culture from primarily the East Bay and offers them up to you, annually, to stuff your house and suit your thrifty urges. Proceeds benefit the programs of the Oakland Museum of California. 

The full WES website is here. Start with the FAQ section and scroll down to Dates/Hours/Admission and Warehouse Site. 

Prices at the WES are generally very good (with a few exceptions). I’ve often encountered EBay sellers at the WES, buying things that they intend to re-sell on their own sites for much more. 

But the real fun of shopping at the WES is not personal profit, but finding unusual, unique—or ordinary—things at great prices, including things that you regret not having bought years ago, and thought you’d never see again.  

Last year I bought a nice, modestly priced, painting in the Art section. It turned out a friend had painted and donated it. Another friend who went this year found exactly the same shirt he had worn that day to the sale, for a couple of dollars. And the one he bought was in better condition than the one he was wearing. 

The vast rectangular warehouse at 333 Lancaster Street in Oakland is divided like a big box or department store into districts, each with its own theme and attentive volunteer staff. Men’s and women’s clothing, toys, books, art, electronics, sewing, jewelry, sportswear, linens, shoes, lamps and small household appliances, furniture, and so forth.  

Furniture commands much of the center of the warehouse with enormous stacks of area rugs and carpets, dining tables galore, a regiment of chairs, mirrors, bedroom sets, and similar.  

This year there’s one new department addition. The Household department has branched out with a new Garden section, found adjacent to the north exit from the warehouse and featuring decorative garden items, pots, planters, furniture, outdoor lighting, and the like. 

The range of objects can be staggering. Toys contains shelves of teddy bears accoutered for every conceivable occupation—soldier, violinist, bride (and groom), circus conductor—as well as a bunch of barbies, unclothed, perhaps of dubious profession. During previews I saw a magnificent vintage model of the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars ($110—“works!” says the label) and a bin of signed minor league baseballs, plus puzzles, doll houses, board games, blocks, vintage marbles. 

Bric a Brac has so many animal figurines that they are divided, shelf after shelf, table by table, by species. Cats, and “chats”, pigs, elephants, “barnyard critters”, birds, and so on. When I was there another customer said she was looking specifically for a tiger to give to a friend. Voila! In a moment both tiger figurine and a tiger pin turned up. 

Books is one of my favorite departments, with everything from trashy romance novels to art books and serious tomes of philosophy. I picked up two full sets of recently published soft cover novel series at the Preview. Two and three dollars apiece. 

Here’s how the Sale will work this weekend. 

Both days, line up in advance at the south entrance. Warning! The lines at the opening will be long, stretching for blocks. Some people line up hours in advance. But the building is so big, it seems able to absorb thousands of shoppers at once and the lines move quickly once the doors open. 

Once inside, get your bearings—there are usually volunteers handing out maps, as well. Each department opens off a wide perimeter corridor that makes a full circuit within the building.  

In a department, pick your items, and when you think you’re finished, take them to the check out counter for that department. Don’t wander out in the aisle with unpurchased items. The volunteers will bag, label, and prepare a bill for your purchases; you pay right there, at the same department.  

Departments this year seem all set up to take credit cards, but checks and cash can also be used (caution—I’ve found some of the cashiers won’t take a local check without a phone number on it. And no American Express). 

Between departments, park bulky bags at the “checkstand” near the north entrance. They’ll give you tickets to reclaim your purchases. Don’t lose your claim tickets! Also, don’t lose the stamped receipts stapled or taped by the cashiers to your purchases. They are, literally, your ticket out of the building. The check out guards collect them as you leave. 

On the main sale days it will be very crowded, but most shoppers are fairly accommodating. And if you do encounter that grumpy person who is monopolizing a book aisle or rack and won’t share access, move on and come back later. There’s much more to see and buy. 

But keep in mind that WES items are “as is”, mostly used, and the selection is entirely dependent on what people donated this past year. The “mystery” section of books, for example, might have a full selection of your favorite author, but it’s equally possible there won’t be a book of hers in sight. It all depends, and it changes, year by year.  

Everything is also first come, first served, and choice items are quickly snatched up by other shoppers. 

Sunday—the second and last day of the sale—should feature sudden and attractive further discounts. In past years, after a certain afternoon hour passes, books and bric a brac, for example, will sell you a bag for something like 5 dollars, and everything you can stuff into it goes for that price. Then you will really see things fly off the shelves. 

The goal of the sellers and the WES is to completely clear out the warehouse by the end of the sale. Decades of experience have shown them that it will fill up again, more than ever, for next year. 

There is a free shuttle from the Fruitvale BART station, but also the challenge of transporting bulky purchases. You will probably not be able to lug four boxes of books or a wooden bookshelf onto BART.  

You can drive, and park in the adjacent neighborhood—an eclectic, artsy and manufacturing district—but make sure you’re not blocking a driveway or marked no-parking area. Some people I know arrange to get dropped off, then have family members or friends come back to pick them up. 

There is no “on site” parking, other than some handicapped spaces at either end of the warehouse (but these fill up quickly). But although the street parking will look fully occupied at the start of the sale for blocks in each direction, by mid-day each day some of the early shoppers are leaving and there is some turnover.  

Other details. No food or drinks allowed inside. No animals / pets allowed except service animals. Don’t bring backpacks or your own shopping bags or boxes; they have those there. Portapotties are outside, north of the building. And it can get tedious standing for hours on the hard concrete floors. Dress comfortably. With good weather predicted for the weekend, the temperatures will probably be reasonable inside the massive, windowless, building block.  

And expect to take your purchases with you when you go. You can’t leave them in the Checkstand after the sale; if you’ve bought a big piece of furniture and need to pick it up later, talk to the furniture volunteers. 

If you haven’t gone before, check out the WES website for instructions and details.