OAKLAND -- The enormous 54th annual White Elephant Sale, a fundraiser for the Oakland Museum of California, comes to Oakland on March 2 and 3 with a special preview on Jan. 27.

"Last year, we raised $1.8 million," said event co-chair Lisa Hines. "It's amazing that from selling a T-shirt for $3 or a cup for 50 cents that we can raise that much money; it's a huge effort."

Hines said about 1,000 people volunteer for the annual sale that occupies a 96,000-square-foot warehouse near the Oakland Estuary. The women's board of the museum sponsors the event.

"Volunteers are the life and breath of the organization," Hines said. "We'd be lost without them. Some have been volunteering for 20 or 30 years."

One of those volunteers is Virginia Furth, who has been co-chair of the sale's electrical department for 31 years.

"This is where they assigned me when I first volunteered, and I don't want to be anywhere else," Furth said, surveying the thousands of lamps, kitchen appliances and musical gizmos in her department. "If it has a plug, it comes to this department; there's something for everyone."

Hines said it's the donors who make the sale happen. The warehouse is open year-round for drop-offs, or donors can schedule a van pickup.

"We love our donors," Hines said. "It's a great way to support the museum, and nothing gets thrown out."

Whatever items can't be used or sold are given to charities. On sales days, Hines said people begin lining up outside as early as 5 a.m. to catch the best bargains.

"We have a very eclectic mix of shoppers who come from all over California and even beyond," Hines said. "Some people fly in for the sale."

One of those faithful shoppers who found something extra special at the White Elephant Sale is Orinda resident Ruth Kaiser.

"I found my wedding dress in the vintage section," said Kaiser, who describes herself as "a thrift store kind of gal."

Not only that, the dress came with a framed photo from the 1930s of the original bride wearing the satin, beaded dress and holding a bouquet of white calla lilies, a bouquet that Kaiser replicated at her wedding on the Golden Gate Bridge.

"It's one of my favorite places in the world and the first place where my husband and I had our picture taken when we were first going out," Kaiser said.

Judy Gregerson is another shopper for things old-fashioned. She keeps her eyes open for china teacups that she cuts in half and makes into delicate night lights.

"I have always loved to recycle," said Gregerson, who also makes gnomes from old wool sweaters and turns silverware into wind chimes.

There are 17 departments at the White Elephant Sale, and each item is individually sorted and priced. The giant warehouse feels more like a department store than a "rummage" sale.

"We have volunteers working six days a week, getting everything ready," Hines said.

She said the White Elephant Sale is really a labor of love.

"It's fun," she said. "There are lifelong friendships that have developed over the years."

Lori Fogarty, the Oakland Museum's executive director, said the museum could not do the work it does without the White Elephant Sale.

"Proceeds benefit a wide range of museum exhibits, educational programs and community activities," Fogarty said. "Best of all, the sale reflects the spirit of the museum, bringing together diverse communities, celebrating civic participation and fostering the spirit of conservation since all the merchandise is recycled and reused."

FYI
What: 54th annual White Elephant Sale to benefit the Oakland Museum of California
Where: 333 Lancaster St., Oakland
When: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 2 and 3, when admission is free. Preview Sale is from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Jan. 27, which requires $15 tickets in advance or $20 at the door; they can be purchased online through Jan. 20 or at the museum.
Information: www.whiteelephantsale.org or call 510-536-6800. Children younger than 12 must be accompanied by an adult.