The words "Goudchaux's/Maison Blanche" conjure up a wealth of
fond memories for local shoppers. At this landmark Louisiana
department store, clerks greeted you by name; children received a
nickel to buy a Coke and for every report-card A; families
anticipated the holiday arrival of the beloved puppet Mr. Bingle
almost as much as Santa; teenagers applied for their first job; and
customers enjoyed interest-free charge accounts and personal
assistance selecting attire and gifts for the most significant
occasions in life -- baptisms, funerals, and everything in
While most former patrons have a favorite story to tell about
Goudchaux's/Maison Blanche, not many know the personal tale behind
this beloved institution. In We Were Merchants, Hans Sternberg
provides a captivating account of how his parents, Erich and Lea,
fled from Nazi Germany to the United States, embraced their new
home, and together with their children built Goudchaux's into a
Baton Rouge legend that eventually became Goudchaux's/Maison
Blanche -- an independent retail force during the golden era of the
department store and, by 1989, the largest family-owned department
store in America.
With a mercantile line extending back five generations to a
small shop in eighteenth-century Germany, the Sternbergs were born
to be shopkeepers. In 1936, as Nazi harassment of Jews intensified,
Erich smuggled $24,000 out of Germany and settled in Baton Rouge.
His wife and three children joined him a year later, and in 1939,
Erich bought Goudchaux's and set about transforming it from a
nondescript apparel shop into a true department store. He made
buying trips to New York for quality fashions and furs, introduced
imaginative sales promotions, and coached his staff in impeccable
customer service, while also training his children to follow in his
Hans details the manifold challenges of operating the store --
from planning financial strategies and creating marketing campaigns
to implementing desegregation and accommodating the repeal of blue
laws. Through many transforming events -- Erich's death in 1965,
expansion into suburban shopping malls, the purchase in the 1980s
of New Orleans retail icon Maison Blanche -- the Sternbergs
successfully maintained the company's core values: quality
merchandise, employee loyalty, and superior customer service. At
its height, Goudchaux's/Maison Blanche operated twenty-four stores
in Louisiana and Florida and employed more than 8,000 people. With
the economic downturn of the early 1990s, Hans made the difficult
decision to sell the business, thus bringing to an end the
Sternbergs' centuries-long mercantile tradition.
Supplementing the fascinating narrative are the recollections of
former customers and employees, a wealth of pertinent photos, and
even Hans's tried-and-true guidelines for negotiating a business
transaction. At once a family, business, and community story, We
Were Merchants richly recalls a bygone era when department stores
were near-magical wonderlands and family businesses commanded the
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