Artisans, Local, Retail

Classic and Kitsch…Treasures of the White Elephant Sale

Classic & Kitsch.  A dichotomy of words that I think defines the wonderful nature of this a once-a-year event that draws crowds in search of treasures to fill their homes and make their hearts smile.  The White Elephant Sale Preview was held this past weekend on the chilly final day of January.  A friend and I joined the long, winding line outside the warehouse in the Jingletown District of Oakland; huddled against the wind, drinking coffee, sharing a bagel, and taking advantage of the time to catch up sans kids.  As the doors were opened we marched forward, flashed our wristbands, and parted ways; each in search of items needed, items wanted, and items to take home “just because”.

Hosted by the Oakland Museum Womens Board, the sale is the one and only fundraising event the board holds in their effort to raise funds for our beloved Oakland Museum of California.  The women-only board has been in place for over 50 years, and currently has about 110 members.  As a group, they have raised more than $20 million to support the museum in all efforts; from acquisitions & exhibits to educational efforts to overall capital improvements.  The founding members of the board were so determined in their efforts to bring change and innovative ideas to the museum they were nicknamed “The Bouffant Mafia”.

Tucked in the rising artist community of Jingletown sits the large warehouse on Lancaster Street where the sale is held, which now also displays the largest public mural in Oakland.  Completed less than 2 years ago in the spring of 2014, the 240 ft. long mural was a collaborative effort between the Oakland Museum Women’s Board and several local artists in the area, Vogue, Griffin One, and Ernest Doty.

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WES 4Once inside, what awaited was a rummage lovers paradise.  In a chaotic rush fueled by treasure seeking adrenaline, attendees beelined in search of goods ranging from clothing to furniture, and everything in between.  When I say everything, I mean EVERYTHING.  It is unbelievable what you can find in the 97,000 square foot warehouse.  From a rainbow of highlighters to rainbow of glassware, if you need it, and even if you don’t, it is here.  Last year I picked up some sturdy, “vintage” spiral notebooks that I used regularly, so I was determined to find more this time around.  Sure enough I came across a handful that are now tucked on a shelf at home.




WES 5What one person might describe as kitsch, another may consider classic.  As I began writing this post I looked up the definition of these two words online* and found the results amusing when paired together:

Classic: “judged over a period of time to be of the highest quality and outstanding of its kind”
Kitsch: “art, objects, or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality but sometimes appreciated in an ironic and knowing way”

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WES 17We are our own breed, those of us who adore this type of event.  We stand over items in awe of their appeal, their appeal being unique to each of us for different reasons.  Oh the things I could do with another old suitcase!  Why can I not stop thinking about those 2 amber glass Harrahs ashtrays?  I don’t smoke!  I could use them for change, or for buttons.  The possibilities are endless.  Our partners cringe just a bit when we walk through the doors, arms laden with our bags of treasures; with a little convincing and cajoling, we secure a free pass.

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WES 19The women behind this sale worked tirelessly to welcome and assist those of us who crowded the aisles.  Often, as I wandered the various sections, I was offered a bag or basket for my things.   I came across a volunteer sitting in the music section with a guitar, singing.  At my final stop in the art section the lovely woman who so carefully wrapped my frames told me about the wonders of her support hose :o)  Over a thousand volunteers work side by side with the ladies of the board to bring this event to us each year.  The energy and excitement is compounded by their enthusiasm for the event.

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WES 14The spirit of this sale and what it means to those of us who have rummaging in our blood is best represented in the story shared by Vivien Cook, a board member who so graciously helped me with questions both before and after the preview.  She sent me a note this week, sharing that she was wearing a red hat with an ostrich feather in it while working in the accessories section.  At the end of the day a woman approached her saying she just “HAD TO buy it”, saying, “I have no where to wear it, but I love it.  What am I going to do, I can’t resist it!”  Vivien’s response…”Wear it to Safeway!”

That sums it up.  Whether classic, kitschy, or somewhere in between, the White Elephant Sale offers something for everyone.  So if you see a woman at Safeway wearing a red hat with an ostrich feather in it, pay her a compliment.  And if you decide to attend the main sale, can you grab those 2 Harrahs ashtrays for me?  I’ll come pick them up :o)

The Oakland Museum Womens Board will continue accepting donations through February, you can find more information on their website here.

The main sale is on March 5th-6th, 2016.  The sale hours are 10:00am-4:00pm on each day.  Admission is free.

Please visit StreetArt SF for a great article about the mural on the side of the Lancaster warehouse.

I would like to thank Vivien Cook and Oona Johnson of the Oakland Museum Women’s Board for their gracious help and assistance.

And for a bit of fun I am including a poem below written by board member Vivien Cook.  She shared this with me just yesterday, and I loved reading it and thinking about this amazing group of women here in our amazing city, representing once again what great things happen within our borders :o)

Bouffant Mafia: Two Million Dollar Rummage Sale

They called us ‘The Bouffant Mafia.’ Well, they still do,
But then you see, it all got rolling in the Sixties and it was male code
For women showing independence, collective judgment, decisive thinking.
White gloves fooling no one, teacups clinking,
Passing tiny sandwiches on china plates,
But plotting something daring along with all the safe stuff.
Engaging women raised on ‘Know your place. Don’t make waves.’
But just beneath the charm veneer something you’d call attitude.
Don’t mess with us or what we think is best,
We hold your gaze unblinking, over the rim of a wineglass.

We had such a great idea: help found a new museum, all hip and very current!
Chose our niche, all pretty standard: raise a little money,
Make the family smile, sell a few donations in a rummage sale.
Applause, take a bow together, a thousand dollar check was quite a lot in ‘65,
But every year those dollars just kept on climbing, adding zeroes,
Wait a year and up they’d go again.
Well, we’d never been the bashful kind so we planned big time!
We had a little meeting, our modest coffee clutch, came to a decision.
Then waving with the top down,
Safety in numbers. “You tell your husband and I’ll tell mine!”

Imagine, taking off our aprons, sitting down to dinner, domestic scene unfolding,
Grown men shocked by their own wives at their own kitchen table,
Fork frozen in midair, home cooked tuna casserole falling in slow motion,
Mouth wide open, children’s eyes as big as bowling balls.
Announcing. “The gals and I are going to buy a warehouse!”
(Wish we’d had a camera to catch the look on all their faces.)
I suppose it begged the question.
“You’re doing WHAT to have a rummage sale!? How big?”
Poker face stayed perfect. “Ninety seven thousand square feet!”

It takes a lot of strange donations to fill that massive building,
Needs a thousand volunteers and 70,000 hours to make it happen:
To sort and clean and tag and sell it.
Faces change, others take their places. Legacy is what we like to call it,
Delivering the perfect deal to the next generation.
Bargainistas, fashionistas prowling down the aisles of the happy hunting ground.
Two point one million for the “Oakland Museum of California!”
Now that’s a fun place to visit: cutting edge, high tech, world class, makes it worth it.
Serving the community and others who aren’t born yet.

So the old guard works until we fade or fall: seventies, eighties, nineties.
Just showing up is half the battle, don’t give a damn about the cold.
Don’t get me started, work those young ones under any table,
Still have that look about us,
Show those whippersnappers in their sixties what we’re made of,
Now we leave those kids to run the business, do the heavy lifting,
Do fancy things that baffle us like websites and computers.
Whatever makes them happy, whatever makes them useful,
Whatever makes them stop and wave that special wave we taught them.

  • Copyright Vivien Cook, 2015



All photos by Adrienne Schell

* definitions for classic and kitsch from




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  • Reply kaitlin February 25, 2016 at 12:10 pm

    Just stumbled upon your blog today – such fun. I cant resist the White Elephant Sale either and totally identify with everything you’ve said. Mayhem, joy, treasures… and who can resist a deal when it’s for a good cause? I left without getting a piece I meant to check out in the art section. Had a 16 month old helper with me who was not as interested in the sale as I was, and I have the same emotion as your forgotten Harrah’s ashtrays!

    • Reply oaklandmomma February 25, 2016 at 1:29 pm

      Thanks Kaitlin, so glad you enjoyed it. I am impressed you tackled it with a 16-month old in tow, not easy!

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