Nothing At the New Ten Cent Store in Havana is Available for Ten Cents, Only for Hundreds or Thousands

Curious locals waiting outside the store / 14ymedio

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Natalia López Moya, Havana, May 20, 2024 — The new store at 704 Carlos III Street in Central Havana has been causing quite a stir. It opened today with an array of merchandise worthy of New York or Los Angeles and with prices to match. Though it is managed by a private company, it shares its premises with a state-run pharmacy.

With Cuba in the middle of a sweltering heat wave, the clean windows, newly installed signage and the promise of air-conditioning were enough to attract some curious onlookers this morning. In a nod to one of the most iconic Havana stores of the 1950s, the store’s management company, Mexohabana, has repurposed the Ten Cent brand name for its storefront.

In addition to a wide assortment of cheeses — they range from the well-known gouda to mozzarella to the exquisite parmesan — the store also sells oatmeal cookies, chorizo, Iberian ham and numerous products labeled “made in USA.”

“It’s obvious this is for people with money,” said a neighbor from a nearby building who had been eagerly anticipating this day. Local residents have been waiting for the store to open for two months, since the beginning of March, when word began to spread that the existing state-owned establishment would be sharing its space with a private one.

“It came out very nice and it looks like they invested a lot of money on the decor. If feels like you’re entering another country,” said the woman, who ultimately left empty-handed. Near her, a man was buying two one-kilogram packages of rice, some sliced ham, some ground cumin and some wheat bran crackers. For the few items that easily fit inside his medium-sized shopping bag, he spent more than 4,500 pesos.

“Nothing here costs ten cents. It’s all hundreds or thousands,” said another customer, who was buying a small lighter for 400 pesos. Those with more money to spend received a complimentary Chupa-Chupa* on opening day. But as one of the employees pointed out, it would cost 50 pesos if they wanted another.

“It all looks very American. There are lots of jams, dressings, sauces and cookies,” one woman told her friend, who preferred to wait outside because the place was already packed with people. “The service is good,” she reported back, “but from the moment you walk in they start asking you if you want something. I was feeling a little pressured. I’d rather have more time to look around before I decide.”

What was obvious to anyone entering the store was that the the Ten Cent name is just a marketing gimmick. This establishment bears no relationship to the low-cost subsidiaries of the North American parent company, F. W. Woolworth Company, that were so popular in Havana in the first half of the 20th century. The only thing that remains of their attractive prices is the memory.

The part of the building that still operates as a drug store seemed like the far side of the moon on Monday compared its neighbor. While the pharmacy’s employee responded with a negative monosyllable to anyone who dared inquire about medications for blood pressure, allergies or nerves, a sign at the adjoining private business urged customers to “eat and drink for life is short!”

Their respective clientele were also very different. While the people mulling outside Ten Cent sported imported clothing and footwear, sunglasses and even a hint of perfume, those headed to the dispensary were in much more modest clothing and carried worn-out bags over their shoulders. A few inches apart, the social differences were all too glaring.

“And what’s this?” asked an elderly man as he happened upon the new private-sector business. The man, who had not walked through the building’s wide covered arcade for months, was amazed at “the resources devoted to this.” But even astonishment was not enough motivation for him to check it out. “Why go in only to leave empty-handed?” he asked.

Two teenagers passing by could not resist the temptation. For a few brief minutes inside Tent Cent, they were able to escape the intense heat outside. They cast their eyes over the well-stocked shelves and salivated over the steaks and ground meat, which they had probably never seen in quite this way in their entire lives. The also laughed at a slice of blue cheese that was worth several thousand Cuban pesos.

*Translator’s note: A Spanish-brand lollipop.


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