Bargain hunters descend on Oakland Museum’s White Elephant sale
on March 7, 2010
By 9 a.m. on Saturday, dozens of people were in line outside a warehouse in East Oakland, waiting for the people inside to lift the heavy metal door to the building. Some had folding chairs, knitted Afghans and thermoses, while others sat on the concrete. They weren’t in line for concert tickets or the new iPad, and it wasn’t Black Friday. They had been there—in some cases for hours—waiting for the mother of all rummage sales: the Oakland Museum Women’s Board’s 51st White Elephant Sale.
The massive fundraiser has raised more than $15 million for the Oakland Museum since the sale began in 1959. The board’s 1,200 volunteers begin to prepare for the sale in May, taking donations throughout the year. In January, they hold a pre-sale for die-hard fans, antique collectors and dealers, but the general public floods the warehouse on a March weekend hoping to score treasures on the cheap.
Nurmi Karen, who has been coming to the sale for at least 30 years, was the first person in line at 3 a.m. It took her two hours to reach the warehouse from her home in Forrestville, north of Santa Rosa. Karen was hoping to add to her collection of over 2,000 Breyer horses, but had already made several purchases at the preview sale in January.
“I’m just coming here for the pure enjoyment of it,” Karen said. “I work for the state, so I have to put it in my vacation planning.” She was also hoping to pick up some audio tapes to entertain her during the two hour trip home.
Jean Dixon, who was number three in line this year, has gotten to know Karen in the 37 years they have both been coming to the sale.
“Nurmi has been first as long as Ive been coming,” she said. “Except one time, I beat her and was first in line.”
Evelyn Hairston, number two in line, arrived at 3:20 a.m., and planned to peruse the vintage clothes, handbags, and Bibles. Hairston was so excited about the sale, she said she never went to bed.
Josie Arroyo and her mother Peggy Flores, who were fourth and fifth in line, have been coming to the sale for ten years. “I like to collect stuff, but I collect to keep it, not to sell. Or maybe that’s called hoarding,” Arroyo said, laughing.
The pair was looking for shoes, or “whatever treasures we might find,” Arroyo said.
The early arrivals spent the morning in folding chairs they had brought with them to the sale.
By 10 a.m., right before the doors opened, volunteers sporting red vests and white coats inside the 96,000-foot warehouse took to their stations and lined up, ready to clap as shoppers rushed in. An announcer started a countdown over the loudspeaker, and once the gate was lifted, shoppers hurried up the ramp to get to the wares.
A volunteer looking down on the sale from an office above the warehouse floor was amazed by the site of hundreds of shoppers combing through the merchandise. “I have never seen it from up here before,” said Oona Johnson. “It looks like ants.”
On offer inside the cavernous warehouse: everything from dining tables and chairs to bikes, a kayak and sailboat, an antique wheel chair, costumes, rare books, and strands of pearls, real or fake. One shopper walked out with a bow and arrow, while others picked up old suitcases, antique trunks, lingerie, and even a Dianne von Furstenberg jumpsuit. One woman had even donated an entire collection of crocheted dolls that she had made of every single First Lady, not to mention Tricia Nixon’s entire wedding party.
Volunteer Joan Propp, who works in the household section, has seen some of the sale’s more interesting sales items. She is in charge of barwear, and gets a lot of genitalia-themed donations. “When we get something that’s a little shady, for some reason I always get the risqué box,” she said. “I have no idea how I became the porn queen of the White Elephant sale. It’s a great distinction.” The most interesting item she says she’s seen in thirty years of volunteering? A teddy bear with a secret compartment inside to conceal a flask of liquor.
Donations for the sale are collected throughout the year, and by January, Propp was working on the sale five days a week. “My husband is a CPA, and he’s unavailable until after April 15, so it’s a good time to keep busy,” she said. “The man hours are terrific—you get more out of volunteers than paid employees.”
The total income from the sale won’t be announced for another two weeks, when the Women’s Board will host a party for the volunteers, but the preview sale in January brought in $350,000, a record high, as well an uptick in early shoppers. “It’s the best we’ve ever done in preview,” said Joan Upshaw, a volunteer and cashier. “We had 1,000 more people.”
Last year’s sale—the group’s fiftieth—brought in $1.3 million for the museum. The four most lucrative departments were art, which raked in $110,000, books, photos and music, which made $124,000, jewelry, which brought in $145,000 and furniture $166,000. The total was the second-highest in the sale’s history, and volunteers are hoping to break the $1 million mark again this year. “We keep worrying with the economy, but they keep coming,” Johnson said.
The White Elephant sale continues today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at 333 Lancaster Street in Oakland.
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