OAKLAND -- The Oakland Museum Women's Board -- founded in 1955 and once known as the "bouffant mafia" -- is in charge of the massive Oakland Museum of California White Elephant rummage sale on March 1-2. But volunteers provide the energy that fuels the annual shopping spree.
On Monday, shifts of volunteers took turns fixing, filing, polishing, folding and pricing everything from a signed and framed photograph of Babe Ruth at bat to a Tiki bar. They had less than two weeks left to get ready for the Jan. 26 preview sale, and in the warehouse -- the size of two football fields -- it was cold enough to see their breath.
"This is a good machine, a real workhorse" said Sarah Jang, who sat hunched over a Swedish 1980 Husqvarna Viking sewing machine donated by the Richmond Unified School District. Jang is not much of a sewer but she is a certified sewing machine mechanic. "I just like to fix things," she said, sitting in the center of multiple rows of machines.
One is a 1949 knee-lever Singer distinguished by a case that looks like a wooden doctor's bag, the kind of tote physicians carried back when they still made house calls.
"Those sell pretty good," Jang said, meaning the vintage Singers. But it is a reasonable assumption that an intrepid bargain hunter might also stumble across a vintage doctor's bag in one of the sale's 17 departments. There is, after all, an antique wheelchair.
The museum calls the occasion a "must for serious shoppers."
This year someone donated a watercolor by Anthony "Kid Tony" Sisti, the boxer-turned-artist who traveled with Ernest Hemingway to the Congo. Sisti had to organize a boxing match in Rome to pay for his fare home. "We never know what we'll get," said Ina Pavey, a ceramicist who volunteers in the art department and serves as a docent at the museum.
Another volunteer, Glenola Bush, a quilter, showed off salvaged pieces of wool that she laundered and folded into half-pound bundles tied together with ribbon. On Monday she was assigned to button-sorting duty. "You have no idea how passionate people are about buttons," she said. Last year a woman walked up to the button counter and scooped out $450 worth of them, said Bush, who sells them by the jar.
Bush has been volunteering at the sale for 15 years. Others have been at it for a quarter of a century.
Roy Egawa has been biking for 50 years, which is how he and his wife, Isako Egawa, came to be standing in the midst of dozens of bicycles, from an aluminum Italian-made Alan model to Schwinn 5-speeds with shiny tassels on the handlebars. Roy Egawa fixes, prices and sells the bikes and then adjusts them to fit their new owner. This year, "There are desirable bikes but not what I'd call rare," he said. However, the couple keeps an eye out for the valuable ones, such as a pristine Schwinn Sting-Ray with banana seat and high-rise handlebars. Also an outdoors enthusiast, he helps with backpacks, camping gear, canoes and handmade bamboo fishing rods.
The White Elephant Sale began 55 years ago and broke the seven-figure mark for the first time in 2002, with receipts totaling $1,021,521. Last year the figure totaled $1.8 million. The money helps pay for acquisitions, educational programs, capital improvements and other expenses for the museum.
Sometimes departments fill up even before the sale begins.
But once it ends, the board will donate most of the leftover items to charities. Even a 96,000-square-foot warehouse can't keep the surplus from one year to the next. "We'd be 30 feet up and walking around on top of it all," Women's Board member Lisa Hines said.
Then, around March 16, the White Elephant Sale donation pickup van will go back out, Hines said, "to start all over again."
Jan. 26: Admission to the preview sale is $15 in advance or $20 at the door. Tickets can be purchased at www.WhiteElephantSale.org or at the museum store on the second floor, 1000 Oak St. The warehouse is at 333 Lancaster St., Oakland.
March 1-2: Entry is free.
Parking, shuttle: There is no charge for parking at the Fruitvale BART station on weekends and a free shuttle will run between the station and the warehouse on the White Elephant Sale and preview day. Parking, including handicap spaces, at the warehouse, 333 Lancaster St., is limited.
Details: Strollers, shopping carts, backpacks and large bags are not allowed in the warehouse. Shoppers can check them at a counter near the Lancaster Street entrance. Buyers have six days to pick up furniture and pianos. All other items must be picked up and removed from the warehouse on the day they are purchased.