Where unsold items end up after Oakland's huge White Elephant Sale

A faux alligator push button desk phone, a plaid Skotch Grill, and a swell Calder-esque mobile are just a few of the vintage treasures I've scored at the White Elephant Sale (WES) in Oakland, California. But I've also picked up everyday items there, like shoes, office supplies, and kitchen utensils. For me and many other folks in the SF Bay Area, it's a much anticipated and beloved event.

It's quite a production to pull off too. The sale itself only happens in the winter but donations are accepted all year round. These donated goods are then processed (cleaned, organized, and/or repaired) by a team of over 600 volunteers. Their massive 96,000 square foot warehouse gets filled with *everything* and then some. With much fanfare, the warehouse doors then open to shoppers**. In 2020 alone, the WES raked in over $2.4M, all of which directly benefits Oakland Museum of California.

They are super picky about what they will accept for donations but, of course, not everything sells. So what happens with the unsold goods? In a recent newsletter for volunteers, I was interested to find out that they make heroic efforts to keep such items out of the landfill by working with various charities:

"We have given over 1,000 pairs of tennis shoes to (charities in) El Salvador… "Toys go to the Philippines, jigsaw puzzles to the crews on ships, infant clothes to new mothers, tennis balls to folks who use walkers, sheets for the zoo animals, electronic equipment for 'new inventions', dishes for newly settled homeless, furniture for apartments for Vietnam vets, sleeping bags for the homeless, warm hats and gloves for farmworkers, bikes for the needy to get to work, jewelry for craft classes, and art pieces that now hang on the walls of the school for the deaf." In addition, frames have been donated to art classes, books have gone to prisons and schools, sewing machines to Afghan refugee women who support their families by their sewing, sports equipment to schools, playgrounds, and camps, and backpacks to many different groups.

With the rise in homelessness in the Bay Area, clothing (especially socks) recycling has become a major focus of WES's program. We now recycle unsaleable clothing to St. Vincent de Paul, Goodwill, Salvation Army, the Farm Workers of St. Mary's Center in Stockton (along with tents, ground covers, sleeping bags, blankets, linens, and household goods), an establishment that serves the poor of the Central Valley, Oakland's Telegraph Ministry, Dress-A-Girl, City-Team Mission in Oakland, and "April Showers" (jeans for men who come to shower at their San Leandro facility where each person receives a clean set of clothing), during and after the sale. One interesting clothing item that is not recycled to homeless charities is tuxedoes from the Men's Department that go to local symphonies!

Love this insight!

**If you're interested in shopping at the WES and you're in the Bay Area, shopping is solely online this year due to COVID. Local pickup of items at their Oakland, California warehouse only.

photo by Rusty Blazenhoff