José Abreu was only 7, but almost half a century later he still vividly remembers the day Cuba's landmark deparment store burned down -- its flames engulfing an emblem of an era that faded soon after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959.
'I was playing in the porch of my house when this lady came down the street screaming, `El Encanto burned down, El Encanto burned down,' '' said Abreu, now head of Miami-Dade's Aviation Department.
The intentional fire that gutted the high-end department store on April 13, 1961, served as prelude for Castro's declaration three days later that his revolution was socialist and four days later for the ill-fated Bay of Pigs exile invasion.
Though Castro's squelching of the invasion ensured his revolution's enduring survival, it is the destruction of El Encanto, founded in 1888, that in the minds of some exiles marked the true end of the pre-Castro era when Cuba was a friend of the United States and a destination for American tourists and Hollywood stars.
''The Cuba of yesteryear died with El Encanto,'' said Visitación Argudín Noya, 95, who was in Havana when fire destroyed the store. ``Slowly at first, but more rapidly later, things began to change after Fidel Castro seized power -- even El Encanto was not the same as before.''
Interviews with former customers and employees reveal a depth of attachment to the department store frequented by pre-Castro society and foreign visitors in search of the latest international fashions.
''Even back then when I was a kid, hearing about the end of El Encanto was like losing a major national monument,'' Abreu recalled during a recent interview. He left Cuba when he was 13, flying to Spain, where he stayed in a camp for unaccompanied children. He traveled to South Florida in 1968, landing at Miami International Airport where he now has an office.
When former employees talk about the old Havana department store they sound as if they are describing an enchanted place, a tribute to a name that means enchantment in Spanish.
''El Encanto offered the latest fashions in the world,'' recalled Alberto Suárez, El Encanto's in-house fashion designer known as Manet.
''Celebrities from Hollywood, Paris and Buenos Aires came to shop at the store,'' said Argudín Noya, who worked in women's clothing.
''The wives of presidents, the people who ran businesses, the owners of sugar mills, they all went to El Encanto,'' said Xiomara López, 85, who worked for 19 years at the store.
To many exiles, the store at the Old Havana corner of Galiano and San Rafael streets -- the heart of the Cuban capital's commercial district in pre-Castro times -- evokes memories not only of a famous department store, but an era, a metaphor for the good times when international celebrities flocked to Havana for the casinos and the resorts.
Tyrone Power was a client, as were other Hollywood stars like Ava Gardner, Lana Turner and Errol Flynn.
''For employees and customers, seeing a famous person in the store was routine,'' said Darío Miyares, executive director of the Association of Former El Encanto Employees.
Argudín Noya said that soon after Castro seized power, the store gave the impression of operating normally. But gradually some employees embraced the revolution and some even showed up for work wearing guerrilla fatigues. ''Depuración
'' or ''ideological cleansing'' committees were set up to weed out employees who were not enthusiastic about the revolution, said Argudín Noya.
Victims of ''depuración
'' committees such as Argudín Noya often got additional scrutiny by colleagues and supervisers. Argudín Noya eventually quit and became an actress, left Cuba in 1967 and went to live in Atlanta, where her son had settled earlier in the 1960s.
French fashion designer Christian Dior sold creations at El Encanto, and famous Cubans stopped by to browse or shop, including Castro, who in his youth would read books in the periodicals department, without buying any, according to Miyares, who for years worked in men's clothing at the English Room.
''He was too cheap,'' said Miyares.
Other prominent clients included former Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista's wives and one of his daughters, all of whom bought Manet designs.
No one probably embodies the carefree pre-Castro era at El Encanto than Manet, the fashion designer. Born Alberto Suárez, he came to be known simply as Manet after store executives chose that name for him as a marketing brand for his creations.
Suárez, 88, was hired in 1940 and initially worked under the supervision of Isabel Quiles, chief of the French Room, which offered the latest fashion designs for women. One of Manet's famous customers was Lana Turner, the actress.
Manet also hobnobbed with world-famous designers. He helped host Dior when the French designer visited El Encanto in 1956. Manet left Cuba in December 1959.
While many former employees became refugees in the United States, a few are now fleeing Venezuela where Hugo Chávez -- a Castro ally. Among former employees now arriving from Venezuela is Manuel Granda, who worked at the store from 1947 to 1961 when he fled to Caracas.
''I came here when it became clear that the situation in Venezuela was going the way of Cuba,'' said Granda, 78, who arrived in the United States in 2007. The majority of El Encanto ex-employees joined their former customers in Miami when hundreds of thousands of Cubans fled in the aftermath of Castro's takeover.
Ex-employees founded the Association of Former El Encanto Employees in 1980 and began holding annual reunions. The most recent took place Oct. 26.
Former employees are also trying to revive the store's annual Justo de Lara journalism prize, named after the pen name of the late Cuban writer and foreign correspondent José de Armas y Cárdenas.
Miyares is the group's executive director. But the association was established by Jacinto González, who remains president; Julio de la Campa, who headed the men's department and Luis Arrojas, who managed the Varadero store branch.
As of today, said Miyares, about 400 former employees are known to the association, with about 300 of them in the Miami area. At the time Castro took over, Miyares said, El Encanto had almost 3,000 employees at the main store, six branch stores, warehouses and 12 business franchises around the island.