Ten days prior to the annual White Elephant Sale, in what could be a madcap scramble to evaluate, categorize, research, authenticate, price and display donated items, volunteers and members of the Oakland Museum of California’s Women’s Board exhibited zero-stress serenity as they planned their annual event. A soothing, jovial atmosphere prevailed as volunteers chatted quietly or called out cheery greetings to each other without interrupting their primary tasks; the excavation of boxed goods.
The annual sale is an impossible-to-calibrate numbers game. Presented and organized by 114 year-round members of the board, the gargantuan rummage sale held in a giant warehouse at 333 Lancaster St. has raised more than $2 million each year to support OMCA’s programs and exhibitions. In its 61st year, the 2020 Preview Sale January 26 precedes the regular sale March 7 and 8.
More than 1,000 volunteers swarmed like worker bees amid towers of boxes in departments that include clothing, jewelry, artworks, household items, books, tools, toys, furniture, sporting equipment and more during a behind-the-scenes tour January 15. Approximately one-third of the volunteers work full-time; about 40 new people are trained each year. The Preview Sale charges admission ($18, $20 at the door) and draws about 3,000 people. The free, two-day sale in March attracts untold visitors. “We don’t count. It would be impossible,” said Women’s Board Marketing Chair Leslie Piels “The doors just open at 10 and people flow in. It’s packed all day. Outside, they sell lunch stuff. It’s a party.”
It’s people and the items themselves that lift White Elephant beyond finiteness to infinite possible stories. Largely anonymous donations leave mystery in the equation. “The truck just pulls up and we unload the stuff,” Piels said. “Or people drive up, unload, and leave. We rarely know where it comes from or who it belonged to.”
Orinda’s Deb Smith has participated since 1977. The 77-year-old volunteer, wearing a bright red hat with “Queen” embroidered in glittery gold thread on it, said she had been chair of the event five times and “just got hooked on it.” The elimination process is tough, although a detailed website provides helpful information about what is and is not accepted. But it was easy for Smith to reject attempted donations such as a tent full of live spiders, 20-year-old ski boots, a real horse in a stall, a cemetery plot, and vehicles the White Elephant Sale used to accept. “The cars required an exhaustive DMC certification and were a headache,” she said.
Smith said household items are best-sellers. “There’s needs and wants. You might want a fishing rod, but you don’t need one. You need pots.” Most valuable item she recalled? A necklace worth several thousand dollars. Most heartwarming? A huge turkey platter with a pattern matching a serving set that a shopper had inherited from a Great Aunt — minus a turkey platter. “People come in all the time, looking to match family heirlooms,” Smith said. Most serious shopper? Hands down, the vintage clothing expert who took a red eye from New York to be at the warehouse door at 5 a.m. “She heard about and wanted our fabulous vintage clothes,” said Smith. “Yes, she bought a lot.”
David Wilson, a six-year volunteer who “inherited” his position as builder and fixer-of-all-things from a cousin, had a different perspective. Tasked with making tops for dress racks, repairing wooden toys, constructing dressing rooms and pretty much anything related to displaying goods, he simply likes working with his hands. “I get the pleasure of making something … and it’s nice to have a job with a beginning, middle and end,” he said. “It’s gratifying. I like to solve problems.”
Wilson’s job even includes performing miracles: “I brought an antique back from the dead this year,” he said. “A wall piece with a thermometer and barometer. It was heavily carved and all broken, stapled together and re-glued many, many times. I put it on a backing board and it worked. It’s out there this year. If I was paid for my time, it would be $200. Here, it might sell for $20. But you can’t think about it that way. It’s a job well done, that’s the pleasure.”
Another pleasure, according to Piels, brings the entire gambit back to family, friendships, and stories. “I grew up surrounded by old things,” she recalled. “My parents dragged us all the time to antique markets in the Midwest, near Chicago. It was an inexpensive way to furnish their home. They were do-it-yourselfers. They liked to fix things, refinish furniture. That’s the spirit of people at the sale.”
Asked about popular, valuable, and most memorable items, Piels said jewelry sells like wildfire. Accessory dresser sets with silver combs, brushes, shoe horns and nail buffers are popular and a large scarf with a famous Polish designer’s label priced on eBay at $1,200 and marked $600 “went in a snap.” This year, a bottle of perfume that online sells for $600 was labeled $120 and might have a similar fate.
Among Piels favorite items were a full set of vintage, leather Louis Vuitton luggage, bought by an 80-year-old anthropology professor. “They looked like they were from a movie and were heavy before you put anything in them. Here’s this frail, elderly woman who leads tours worldwide, buying them.” Mother-daughter teams — among both shoppers and volunteers — warm her heart and leave her to say, “It’s continuity, a connection to Oakland and the museum. It’s a family, a great social network.”
While Piels’ purchases include a heavier than-luggage Edwardian chest of drawers with scalloped, gingerbread trim, and down-filled chairs with upholstery “to die for,” Smith’s favorite “find” tops the scales. “The greatest purchase the Women’s Board made was this warehouse. We had previously rented old, leaky, cold warehouses for maybe a dollar from the City of Oakland. It took five years and a dedicated real estate man to buy this. We paid it off in five years. We had a “burn the mortgage party” and the extra couple hundred thousand we saved, it went to the museum.
White Elephant Preview Sale, Jan. 26, 2020, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., $18-20, children under 12 free with adult, White Elephant Sale Warehouse, 333 Lancaster Street, Oakland. 61st Annual White Elephant Sale, Mar. 7-8, free, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., White Elephant Sale Warehouse, 333 Lancaster Street, Oakland, WhiteElephantSale.org