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Greenville & Hockessin Life

Behind the scenes of Cokesbury’s white elephant sales

Jun 29, 2023 11:16AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Ken Mammarella
Contributing Writer

A few numbers help describe the white elephant sales run regularly at Cokesbury Village.

One is $400, the amount earned at the first one – just baked goods – held on Jan. 26, 1979, a scant three months after the Hockessin retirement community opened. Another is 120, the number of sale volunteers, an astounding 30 percent of all residents. One more is $8,000, the amount raised when a Tiffany lamp – found clearing out a storage locker that belonged to a resident – was auctioned a few years ago. And a final pair: the sales generally earn $50,000 to $60,000 a year.

But these numbers cannot express the camaraderie among volunteers and good feelings the sale generates. The volunteers are helping donors get rid of stuff and buyers find new treasures. They’re extending the useful life of household items, clothing and furniture, rather than letting them be trashed. And volunteers, other residents and community members enjoy the activities funded by the sales.

“If you work the White Elephant Sale, you have a lot of fun,” said co-chair Bob Netherland.

“It’s so much fun to price and wrap,” Valerie Adams said on a recent Tuesday while doing just that. Volunteers also ensure that electronic gadgets work and items are complete.

The big white elephant sales – so big and with such great values that people line up in advance to be first in the door – run three times a year, this year in March, July and November. Smaller furniture sales occur in between, and a furniture catalog is published every two months. Volunteers also reach out to trusted dealers for specialized items.

Next sale is July 28-29

The next big sale is Friday-Saturday, July 28-29, running 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday and 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday. Smaller items are arranged in and near the du Pont Pavilion, near the ambulance entrance of the complex, 726 Loveville Road, Hockessin. Furniture is sold from a storage shed in a parking lot.

The sales benefit the Cokesbury Village Residents Association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that supports multiple committees and their activities: concerts, classes, lectures, cultural programs, special-interest groups for residents, beautification of the campus grounds, more books for the library and entertainment and participatory activities for residents in the assisted living and healthcare units. “All things that will enrich the lives of people at Cokesbury and in the community,” Netherland said.

The association has a Facebook page that people can access to learn sale dates and other information. Members post a sign two weeks before each major sale at the corner of Lancaster Pike and Loveville Road. Furniture-only sales are advertised at least a week before. It also send notifications to an email list. To get on the list or for other questions, write to Netherland at [email protected].

A few items come from people on the complex’s waiting list, and donations continue as residents downsize from cottage to apartment to assisted living to healthcare and final resting place. “After moving in, people discovered that they brought too much stuff,” Netherland said, citing personal experience. “Those of us who have lived here a long time are still going through our items. How much linens, luggage and kitchenware do you need?”

The sale now has three chairs: Pat Roy, who helps with downsizing; Don Moore, who handles furniture; and Netherland, who handles everything else.

The volunteers gather to process all that stuff 8:30-11 a.m. Tuesdays, except for the week of the sale and the week after, for a wrap-up meeting. Donations that are dirty or in poor condition are recycled or trashed. Donations are first split into big categories: furniture; books, CDs and DVDs; men’s items; and women’s items. Volunteers do some quality control, split the donations into subcategories, price them and box them. Each sorting area has short want-lists from residents, and volunteers buy a few treasures. “I can dress my whole body for a party with items from the sale,” said Jeanne Gilligan.

The puzzle of pricing

Thanks to their skill in researching online, some prices are easy. That unused food mill that retails for $129? A Dooney & Bourke purse listed online at $243? Both will be bargains at $40. That pair of brass candlesticks that resembles ones found online for $120? Another bargain, at $30.

But a brass urn with a map India on side and an engraving of the Taj Mahal on the other? Or “Nature’s Hallelujah,” an illustrated poetry collection where two copies online are going for $59.39 and $98? They require some more research and finally decisions based upon lifetimes of experiences.

Meredith McGregor, for instance, has been volunteering for 50 years with sales of used books, first for the American Association of University Women and for the last six at Cokesbury.

Those prices are among the higher ones. Many items are 50 cents or a dollar, Valerie Adams noted.

In the past, they listed some items online – they got $562.52 for an old wooden jigsaw puzzle – but the pandemic led to a hiatus for that routine and also the public sales.

Forty years of practice has fine-tuned sale weeks. On Wednesday, Cokesbury Village staff members set up dozens of tables in the DuPont Pavilion. Volunteers follow first with labels for the tables and then the actual items. After the sale ends, staff members are invited to take stuff for free for their families. Items remaining are donated, and the pavilion can then return for a few months to its regular uses, including pickleball and exercise classes.

Some items – like china cabinets and large sofas – rarely sell, as younger generations furnish their houses differently and aren’t interested in a lot of stuff (or a place to display it).

So, after a Tuesday morning dedicated to schlepping and sorting, pricing and handling, do all the volunteers head to lunch together? No, Gilligan said, explaining that she’s too tired.

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