Oakland’s Famously Analog White Elephant Sale Goes Online

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A view of the 96,000-square-foot warehouse that houses the White Elephant Sale. (Odell Hussey Photography; Courtesy of Oakland Museum of California)

There is no event quite like Oakland’s annual White Elephant Sale. Picture a 96,000-square-foot warehouse on the edge of the Oakland Estuary, slowly filling with objects donated over the course of a year. We’re talking furniture, art, books, linens, sports equipment, clothing, jewelry, toys—the stuff of 20 different departments spread throughout the space. Hundreds of thousands of items.

And over that year, a thousand volunteers from the Oakland Museum Women’s Board price and arrange each and every one of those items, all leading up to the climactic days of a late January preview sale and an early March weekend main event. When the warehouse doors open, thousands of shoppers—who in some cases have waited for hours, in lines snaking through the neighborhood—stream inside.

Sherry Westernoff, president of the Women’s Board, says that moment is what it’s all about. “The volunteers are cheering them on to come on in and there’s just a lot of excitement,” she says. “I think the volunteers love it because they see many of the same shoppers year after year.”

Volunteers dress in white shirts and lab coats and adorn themselves in elephant accessories. Each year the Women’s Board designs a new button to mark the sale. (Odell Hussey Photography; Courtesy of Oakland Museum of California)

Like so many things, the White Elephant Sale won’t be the same in 2021. There will be no climactic opening of doors, no cheering volunteers, no in-person sale. The event, which usually raises over $2 million a year for the Oakland Museum of California, was lucky enough to even take place at all in 2020; the main sale ended on March 9, just days before shelter-in-place orders took effect.

Instead of weaving their way through the maze of different departments, this year’s shoppers will take to their computers. Starting Saturday, May 1 at 8am, the White Elephant Sale will be online through May 23, presenting an estimated 8,000–9,000 items ranging in price from $10 to thousands of dollars.


Volunteers won’t be necessary to guide shoppers from a department check stand to the cashier (a complicated and often confusing process that involves recycled shopping bags, carbon-copy receipts and staplers), but in this digital version of the sale, that helpful energy is represented in each and every online item listing.

The sale is known for both great deals and one-of-a-kind items. (Odell Hussey Photography; Courtesy of Oakland Museum of California)

“What’s been exciting is that it’s given a lot of our members and volunteers an opportunity to learn some new skills and delve into the history of our items for sale,” Westernoff says of the decision to move the sale online. Volunteers returned to the warehouse in October to receive donations, photograph items, assign SKU numbers and write descriptions for the website. “When you’re putting something online you really need to describe it,” Westernoff says. “You can’t touch and feel it.”

The Women’s Board hasn’t set a monetary goal for this year’s sale, but both they and the museum will be happy with any sort of profits. The museum has lost over $3 million in earned revenue since it closed in March 2020, and recently cut 20 staff positions. The Women’s Board is OMCA’s second-largest source of support beyond the city of Oakland, responsible for raising about 10% of the museum’s operating budget. Since 1959, the Women’s Board has contributed over $27 million to the museum.

For those missing the hectic energy of the in-person event, some semblance of those vibes have been channeled into the idiosyncrasies of the online shop. For instance, while shoppers can browse across departments and fill their basket at will (forget the warehouse’s walled fiefdoms), an item will not be well and truly yours until you check it out.

“I absolutely would urge customers that if they see something they really want to have, buy it then!” Westernoff says. “Don’t wait.”

Shoppers line up outside the warehouse sometimes as many as three hours before the doors open for the preview sale. (Odell Hussey Photography; Courtesy of Oakland Museum of California)

Regular shoppers like Oakland resident Jackie Im are willing to give the online sale a chance, but for her there’s no replacing the communal spirit of the in-person event. “It’s waiting in line, being around all these other people, overhearing people talking about what they’re going to get, all these random bits of conversation,” she says.

She says she’ll miss even the seemingly annoying parts of the White Elephant Sale, like the first time an announcement comes over the loudspeaker about a lost person. She compares the event to a neighborhood jumble sale: “It’s a nice point of gathering for people that you wouldn’t necessarily interact with.”

In that vein, OMCA Director and CEO Lori Fogarty says the White Elephant Sale is a perfect encapsulation of the museum’s ethos. “For me it really is a reflection of our mission and how we are about accessibility for everyone,” she says. The affordability of the event, and the basic items people can find for often good deals, provide a resource for the community in addition to raising funds for the museum.

Westernoff knows both shoppers and volunteers look forward to returning to the warehouse for “Northern California’s biggest and best rummage sale,” but she’s proud of the work they’ve done since October to completely reimagine the event in a digital form. Ever helpful, the sale’s Instagram account has been doling out “pro tips” to help people navigate the new system. “Not sure if it will fit? Buy it,” the account recommends. “If you don’t like it, donate it to the 2022 White Elephant Sale.”

The 2021 White Elephant Sale begins Saturday, May 1 at 8am and runs until 6pm on May 23. Details here.