BY GARY MARX | Chicago Tribune
The front window of the once elegant Fin de Siglo department store is shattered, with a hole the size of a soccer ball.
But what has become of the cavernous interior is what upsets long-time Havana residents who lament the stark deterioration of the renowned store - and by extension the entire Cuban economy.
In pre-revolutionary times, Fin de Siglo’s five floors were packed with stylish clothing, perfumes, tableware and wedding gowns, along with lamps, furniture and other household goods.
At Fin de Siglo, you could get a new suit or dress tailored on the spot, purchase bedding, stock up on hardware supplies and sample sweets and other treats at the ground-floor bakery.
Its popular hair salon, decorated with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, overlooked the ground floor displays and allowed women to visually browse the aisles while getting their hair permed and hands manicured.
Today, Fin de Siglo is one of Cuba’s last-stop shopping venues, a place where bargain hunters go to scrape the bottom of the barrel of a socialist economy that limps along almost a half-century after the triumph of the revolution.
All but Fin de Siglo’s ground floor is shuttered.
What remains for sale: piles of secondhand clothing and old auto parts for Russian-made vehicles, including side panels, front doors, windshields, engine blocks and mufflers.
Behind one counter sits a stack of used British overcoats - not a hot commodity in sweltering Havana. Across the aisle are hundreds of glass beakers, test tubes and other laboratory equipment.
Decades-old, broken Russian Robotron typewriters and gutted television sets and boomboxes are displayed prominently.
In an impoverished nation where little is discarded and everything is recyclable, the broken items are on sale for Cubans who can either fix them or cannibalize them to repair other machines.
“With changes in technology, these products aren’t useful anymore,” said Alberto Hernandez, co-manager of Fin de Siglo. “But we’ve created a store for people that still need the different items or their parts for their home or work.”
Others are less generous in their evaluation of what has become of the great retailer.
“Fin de Siglo was the most beautiful store in Cuba,” said Yolanda Iglesia, 47, a former employee at the retailer, which had retained some its grandeur until a decade ago. “Now, it’s been destroyed.”
Sitting near one end of Italy Avenue, more commonly known as Galiano Street, Fin de Siglo was one of a handful of grand department stores that flourished in pre-revolutionary Cuba along a commercial stretch beginning at the city’s sweeping seaside boulevard, the Malecon.
There was El Encanto, the department store burned to the ground by counterrevolutionaries in 1961, along with Flogar, La Epoca and Ten Cents, a Woolworth-style chain.
The Galiano district was not only for Havana’s elite but also drew a mixture of classes of people who came to shop and marvel at the elaborate window displays, bright lights and rich array of architecture ranging from art deco to neo-colonial.
“It was very elegant,” recalled Orestes del Castillo, 69, a professor of architecture who also works at Havana’s Department of Architectural Heritage. “People used to come on Saturday and Sunday afternoons just to stroll.”
Like much of Havana, Galiano Street suffered a steep decline after Fidel Castro’s 1959 triumph as the government nationalized businesses and funneled scarce resources into health, education and other programs along with the military.
Cuba has been further impoverished by the U.S. trade embargo and by what experts describe as Castro’s wrong-footed policies that have left many Cubans collecting their $10 monthly government salary while hustling the black market to make ends meet.
But it was the collapse of the Soviet Union - Cuba’s largest trading partner and the source of several billion dollars in annual subsidies - that spelled the death knell for Havana’s old department stores.
Today, many vintage buildings along Galiano Street are boarded up, gutted or in various states of disrepair.
The old stores that remain open retain the faint aura of 1950s Americana along with the paltry selection of goods once sold in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe.
In Ten Cents, cheap plastic combs, Chinese bicycle inner tubes and nail files are displayed like priceless diamonds under glass. Few customers walked the aisles recently as a stereo blasted KC & The Sunshine Band’s 1977 hit song, “I’m Your Boogie Man.”
It’s much the same at Fin de Siglo, a gigantic, L-shaped building with such odd items for sale as a broken theater chair, a rotting automobile seat, several busted adding machines and a tobacco press.
Several employees said they had no idea of the use or value of their products. But an old, Russian-made boat lamp listing for $1.90 caught the eye of Orlando Sanchez, a 38-year-old engineer.
He said it would work perfectly to illuminate his garden.
“I always come here because I finds things that are nowhere else,” said Sanchez, handing over the cash.