Oakland’s White Elephant Sale preview event in-person Feb. 27
By Lou Fancher
It’s little wonder the 63rd annual White Elephant Preview Sale presented by the Oakland Museum Women’s Board sold out within three hours of availability. Pent-up demand was high to participate in-person in the mega shopping spree that before the pandemic raised more than $2 million over six consecutive years to support the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA).
In 2021, the event was held entirely online as the women’s board adjusted to comply with then-more-stringent California and Alameda County safety protocols. This year, in-person shopping will return to the White Elephant Sale warehouse at 333 Lancaster St. in Oakland’s Jingletown district, just across the Oakland Estuary from Alameda (whiteelephantsale.org). Renata Dowdakin, the Oakland Museum Women’s Board president, said recently that flexibility and nimbleness remain a part of presenting the event.
“We have an email list of over 8,000 people who are White Elephant shoppers. We’ve kept in touch with them over the past few months about the sale. As you can imagine, putting on any event during COVID is a challenge. We had to play a waiting game as omicron made its way in the community. We had our preview set for February 27th, but we had to wait to see if we could fulfill that day … and consider, would it be prudent?”All 1,500 of the $40 preview tickets to the one-day, five-hour event that will indeed be Feb. 27 sold out within two-and-a-half hours of being made available on Eventbrite. March sale dates (some already sold out) on four consecutive weeks run Wednesday through Saturday and are available with a $5 reservation. A final “blowout” weekend sale April 2-3 is free with registration.
Proof of vaccination, photo ID and masks are required at all times. To maintain social distancing, capacity rates have been capped at 1,500 for the preview and at 500 shoppers for all other sale dates. Only shoppers 12 or older will be allowed in. Reservations are necessary, no walk-ups are allowed, and all sales transactions will be by credit or debit cards only in this year’s cashless sale.
Over the five weeks, shoppers will find thousands of high-end items including furniture, artwork, household items, ceramics, sporting goods, fine jewelry, collectibles, music, books and vintage and contemporary apparel. The sale is well known for offering only items in good or perfect condition.
Donations determined unacceptable are carefully weeded out by volunteers who before the sale describe, photograph, categorize, price, label and arrange the thousands of goods received each year for display in well-organized categories. Dowdakin says women’s clothing arrived in vast quantities this year.
“We’ve sorted through and saved the best items for the sale,” she said. “We have charities that accept the items we have too much of, not just clothing. Our leftovers after the sale are also donated.”
Dowdakin said the women’s board has for more than 15 years donated items, especially clothing, to St. Mary’s Center in Stockton. That organization serves 750 people, including farmworkers and people who are unsheltered or food-insecure.
“The clothing we donate is items we have excess of or might be a little too worn to sell,” Dowdakin said. “Last month, we donated 219 bags of goods that also included blankets, comforters, sheets, sleeping bags and tents. We also donate similar goods to the St. Vincent Clothes Closet in Oakland and donated 28 bags this week.”
Among the goods available in the warehouse during the sale and seen in presale images shared by Dowdakin are copious collections of candles, frames and glassware in emerald, cobalt blue and purple hues. There are room-size and smaller throw rugs, vintage leather steamer storage chests and suitcases, old-fashioned typewriters, lamps, gowns and so many George Foreman grills that she says volunteers are “threatening to give one away with each large purchase.”
A surprising — and to Dowdakin pleasing — donation mirrors OMCA’s current exhibit, “Edith Heath: A Life in Clay.” The exhibit introduces visitors to the designer and entrepreneur behind Bay Area-based Heath Ceramics. “We happened to get vintage and modern Edith Heath ceramics,” she says. “Strangely, coincidentally, they’re all ashtrays.”
This year’s return to in-person shopping attracted volunteers to prepare for the sale with greater ease as vaccine rates increased. Even so, the women’s board began surveying all past volunteers during the summer months to ask what would make them comfortable returning. Feedback about the circumstances and conditions, especially when shoppers were in the warehouse, was critical as the board began to prepare for the 2022 sale.
“We realized people would be comfortable with everyone being vaccinated, wearing masks and practicing social distancing. The other (condition) was limiting the number of shoppers in the building. So we stuck with those key decisions,” says Dowdakin. “After that, it was really just a matter of communicating what we were doing, putting together a schedule and being prepared to adapt to the omicron virus and what might happen in terms of changes in county requirements or regulations. In the end, we’re going above and beyond what the county currently sets for protocols.”
Because the primary purpose of the 114 year-round women’s board members in prepandemic years was to support OMCA’s standard acquisitions, exhibitions, educational programs, capital improvements, and other needs, Dowdakin says the museum’s focus in 2020 demanded a shift. Calls for greater diversity, equity and inclusion for people of color and other underserved people in art institutions and industries across the board had the entire organization focusing on the issue.
“In the past, they’ve (the museum has) approached us and made requests for specific things,” says Dowdakin. “At the beginning of the pandemic, they asked for an open grant so they could use those moneys for what they prioritized. It seemed like the right thing to do because they were the best judge of what they needed and what they wanted to do for the community. We knew the museum staff and leadership was looking internally at how they interface with the community, how they could shift the paradigm to better reflect the community.”
As the museum realizes and implements the changes, Dowdakin predicts that soon everyone walking into the museum will see reflections of themselves and what they consider important represented.