Elephants and Libraries for Oakland by
(149 Stories)

Prompted By Volunteering

Loading Share Buttons...

/ Stories

While I’ve done a lot of volunteering in my time, most of it has been on the professional or educational level rather than strictly in the community. I’ve written a lot of material pro bono, served on boards and committees, and had a great time for years working on an annual fundraising house tour for Mills, doing everything from scouting potential houses to baking cookies for the attendee receptions. Recently I’ve spent more dollars writing checks for causes than spending actual hours on them.

The White Elephant Sale raises dollars in the millions for the museum and provides items for people in the community ...

My parents’ volunteer work tells a different story. When I was a small child, my mom was very involved with Hadassah and did a variety of tasks–working on rummage sales, coordinating fashion shows, and designing programs. She even gave haircuts, for which the other women paid, to donate the money to the organization. Many years later, now living in Oakland, my mom joined the Women’s Board of the Oakland Museum of Art and began working at the annual White Elephant Sale.

People from all over the East Bay and beyond would donate clothing, antiques, books, jewelry, rugs, furniture, and items too numerous to be named throughout the year. The merchandise was stored in a huge warehouse until the time of the sale, which would take place typically in March (except for this year, when it went virtual). The featured image gives some idea of the scale of the warehouse on sale day–it’s enormous.

With her interior design background, my mom was a natural to work in the rug and furniture department, hauling around carpets and pricing items for weeks, and then working on sale days. I remember some fun “preview” days and still own artwork, a coffee table, and rugs purchased at real bargains. The sales raise dollars in the millions for the museum and provides items for people in the community who wouldn’t be able to afford them at full price. A few years ago my mom gave up her work at the sale when it became too physically demanding for her, but we have donated some of her furniture to the sale as a contribution.

When my father retired at 62 from an executive position, earlier than planned because of a company buyout, we were very concerned about what he would do with his time. Other than taking care of the exterior house chores, he didn’t have any hobbies. Fortunately, he was able to consult part time for the same company for a while, and then, through my mom, he began taking an interest in the White Elephant Sale. Dad worked in the book department for several years, and through contacts there became involved with the Friends of the Oakland Library.

This group ran a bookstore in the library to try to raise funds, but the store was unattractive, poorly run, and not turning a profit. Dad saw an opportunity to use his executive skills to help. Over a few years, he helped reorganize the store and streamline the way it operated. Books were offered for sale that attracted the community. My dad coordinated the hiring of a bookstore manager, who kept it running smoothly, and after a while, the store was turning a healthy profit to benefit the library–a crucial resource for the city of Oakland.

When my dad passed away, I was moved by how many people from Friends of the Library showed up at the memorial service and were appreciative of his contribution. We were appreciative as well, for this group gave his last years a real purpose.

With the pandemic and economic situation, the need for volunteering of all types is very great. Last year at this time I would have wondered about the commitment of the younger generations to volunteering, but all of us have received a wakeup call about our responsibilities to the community, to volunteer where and how we can.

Profile photo of Marian Marian
I have recently retired from a marketing and technical writing and editing career and am thoroughly enjoying writing for myself and others.

Characterizations: moving, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Your parents did remarkable work, Marian. That rummage sale you depict is really VAST! How wonderful knowing that your parents’ talents were put to good use and were appreciated. Now, I think the younger generation considers this “social justice” work, but as you say, they, too, are stepping up. Everyone needs to do their bit to help out.

    • Marian says:

      Yes, the work matched their talents, Betsy, which is why my parents enjoyed it so much. And I think the social justice aspect would draw young people in, although supporting art and literature was important to my parents as well.

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    You are so lucky to have had parents who taught you the importance of community volunteerism, Marian. Like you, I worry about the younger generation (my kids) who seem to lack the time our generation had to share its time, talent, and money for worthy causes. I hope you are right that the pandemic has been a wake up call.

  3. Wonderful memories of your parents Marian, and from what you tell us about their volunteering work I have sense of each on them!
    Wonderful writing!

  4. John Shutkin says:

    A wonderful story, Marian. As you can imagine, I love how the focus is on your parents, and particularly on the White Elephant Sale. And I also loved how your father transferred his business skills to the bookstore. (I ran the bookstore in our junior high in 9th grade; maybe I can do the same thing.)

    And your last paragraph is absolutely perfect.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, John, we had something in common with our mothers, although they had different backgrounds and skills. I don’t know if it’s a national group, but there is an organization called Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) that helps people starting businesses. Many years of expertise and wisdom in that group, and members helped some of my friends get going in years past.

  5. Suzy says:

    Marian, I love this story of how your parents devoted their disparate talents to the White Elephant Sale. The picture of the sale is staggering in its size and variety of items. Loved how your father reorganized the library bookstore too. Most library bookstores I have patronized could use someone like your father to come in and take them in hand. I don’t suppose he ever wrote up an instruction manual of how to do what he did.

    • Marian says:

      Thanks, Suzy. I wish my father had written something up, since I’ve had the same experience at other library bookstores as you. And, the White Elephant warehouse floor is even bigger than it looks in the photo, if that’s possible. One of my favorite finds from a sale one year was a bust of Apollo that we spray painted and placed in our garden. Very whimsical.

  6. Mister Ed says:

    Marian, thanks for this story. Many years ago I attended the White Elephant Sale — it was so vast and I arrived fairly late in the day— otherwise I would have bought more, I’m sure. But I was (and still am) a fan of David Lance Goines, a Berkeley artist best known for his posters, often promoting a cause or a business. His Chez Panisse poster is recognizable to many, and his logo is still on Ravenswood wine bottles. But at the White Elephant sale, I saw a stack of his posters — all the same — promoting recycling, titled “Zero Waste” with the name and address of an Environmental Cleanup Company of the same name tastefully identified at the bottom. My environmental career interest led me to purchase all they had, thinking I could give them to friends and hold onto the rest which I was sure would become valuable collectors’ items. I framed one and gave a few others away. I won’t get rich from those I still have, but I’m glad I still have a bunch of them. Kudos to your parents for putting the White Elephant sale in good order and being a part of making this poster available to me.

    • Marian says:

      That’s so cool, Mr. Ed. There were amazing finds at that sale, and I know of David Lance Goines. One year at the sale I found a beautiful print, with gold embossing, of the city of Jerusalem, which I couldn’t have afforded at full price at the time. It now hangs in my small “boudoir” room, where I enjoy it often.

  7. I love this story, Mare…how your parents’ interests and skills lead the way to volunteer work that they were perfectly suited for and enjoyed through their later years. I’ve always bristled at the phrase “Time is money,” even though I get the reasoning. But time is time, and money is money. Equating them makes people think they’re losing money if they’re not getting paid. That’s why it’s so hard for so many people in our culture to relax. Volunteering turns the equation on its head and is a godsend for retirees who have a hard time not “working.”

  8. I really enjoyed the details such as the giving of haircuts, that really jumped out to bring this series of vignettes to life. Like Suzy, I have known other community book sales that could have used your father, or an instruction manual of his making, to get them on the right track! It’s so great that he was able to convert his executive skills to the service of the broader community.

  9. Risa Nye says:

    I’m a big fan of the White Elephant Sale! I went to the last one and ran into several friends who volunteer there. Thanks for sharing this story–and the picture! It’s hard for anyone to imagine the scope of it until you see a picture like that one..

  10. Joe Lowry says:

    It’s nice to read about your parents involvement. Today, with all the emphasis on STEM subjects, art and literature get over looked too often. Even though my career was in science, most of it in the lab, I am happy that I did get some introductions to art and literature when I was young. I am sure your parent’s efforts gave some other people some of the joy I have experienced in art and literature.

Leave a Reply