Thrifters and Recessionistas Unite -- at the Oakland Museum's Fabulous White Elephant Sale

Categories: Arts, Books, Photos
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Christmas may come but once a year, but for hardcore thrift store, flea market, and rummage sale fans, it's coming up this weekend at the fabulous White Elephant Sale, running Saturday, March 7, and Sunday, March 8, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the White Elephant warehouse, 333 Lancaster (at Derby) in Alameda. The annual sale, whose proceeds benefit the Oakland Museum, has been ongoing since 1959.

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For the uninitiated, entering the enormous warehouse may be overwhelming. There are 17 different departments, ranging from the Boutique (better china, silverware, metal, pottery, and Asian items, including vintage), to Bric-a-Brac (assorted tscotchkes including baskets, vases, and a truly amazing array of holiday-themed merchandise, including TONS of Christmas stuff). White Elephant Sale aficionados know that, for example, the odd bit of colorful collectible California pottery might show up in the Boutique, but there also could be pieces in Household (where you'll also find walls full of mugs at 50 cents each, and baskets of tableware are 25 cents each) or Bric-a-Brac. It pays to look around. 

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Seekers of vintage clothing hit not only the Clothing and Shoe departments, but also Accessories, stocked with hats, scarves, gloves, and a case full of celluloid and Bakelite dressing-table accoutrements, as well as perfume, makeup, and such flirtatious trifles as fans.

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The Jewelry department looks like Ali Baba's cave. The Art department features not only original signed paintings, prints, and photographs, but boxes full of frames and cases of tiles, stained glass, and figurines. And many Bay Area homes boast furnishings from the Furniture department, ranging from contemporary sofas to hundred-year-old tansu chests, Victoriana, Arts and Crafts, and a terrific selection of framed mirrors. Lamps are given their own department, right next to tables covered with all sorts of small electric appliances.

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White Elephant Sale regulars know that the Textiles area is laden with hand-embroidered towels, vintage linen napkins, ethnic items, and kitschy aprons and tablecloths, but they also head to  the Sewing area for bits of old lace and rolls of fabric, as well as buttons sold by the card, the jar, and the scoop. There's always a row of working sewing machines, waiting for the trendy followers of etsy.com and ReadyMade.  

The Book department is nicely sorted, and boasts drawers-full of ephemera (Californiana, postcards, travel brochures, menus), and boxes of small vintage photographs ranging from professionally-taken portraits to family snapshots. Next door in Music you'll find instruments as well as tables full of CDs and older-format records. 

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Pricing is pleasingly inconsistent. You may think a few items are over-priced, but most of the things you pick up will be bargains indeed. The White Elephant Sale is one of the few places we know where a dime or a quarter will buy you something neat (such as vintage stickers and cards in the Stationery part of Bric-a-Brac, plastic cocktail stirrers in Household, Happy Meal figurines in Toys). As with many such sales, selection is best early on -- but we hear serious deals may be struck in the last hour or two on Sunday. Bring cash, credit cards, debit cards, and checks (with photo ID).

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Parking is scarce, but there's a shuttle that runs back and forth from the Fruitvale Bart Station, which is also a walkable route.

The biggest danger at the White Elephant Sale is discovering a whole new area of objects to collect -- as well as an instant collection!

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One may arrive in search of costume jewelry and lurid-covered paperbacks and walk out with a new interest in ethnic dolls, souvenir spoons, or vintage children's clothes hangers. Take it from one who knows, and hears the siren call of the White Elephant Sale from miles away.

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