The Sultan of Swap

He's a hillbilly boor, a promotional genius, a political trickster, a lovable rogue, and a control freak. Preston Henn is also the owner of one of the biggest flea markets in the world.

On first approach the Fort Lauderdale Swap Shop looks like 80 acres of chaos. Five miles west of the ocean, 2000 vendors show up long before sunrise to sell everything from pig snouts to home mortgages. Some of the sellers are full-time pros bent on millionairehood. Some are onetime garage-sale amateurs, come to offload the flotsam and jetsam of suburbia from the backs of pickup trucks and vans. This noisy, sunbaked universe of vendors' stalls -- America's second-largest flea market, and Florida's second most popular tourist attraction after Disney World -- gives way at dusk to the biggest drive-in movie theater left on Earth. Seven nights a week, customers in cars line Sunrise Boulevard just west of I-95 waiting to pay $3.50 apiece and watch the latest Hollywood spectacles on 13 open-air screens.

The round-the-clock chaos at the 35-year-old Swap Shop is only skin deep. Beneath the surface there's an organizing principle (huge crowds, cheap prices), and behind the scenes there is Preston Henn, a 67-year-old hillbilly genius variously loved and hated by his business associates, but mostly unknown to the 12 million souls who visit the Swap Shop each year. As owner and landlord of South Florida's gaudiest cash cow, Henn rakes in money from each and every vendor's stall through a complex rental structure that changes with the season and the time of day; he gets a cut of the revenues from 15 different restaurants in the enclosed, air-conditioned food court, which includes what may be the busiest McDonald's this side of Moscow; and he collects admission fees for parking, movies, and even walk-in browsers -- who currently pay 25 cents each.

September is the slowest month at the Swap Shop, and rain is disastrous. But, on a recent rainy September morning, Henn rises at 3 a.m. just as he has all his life. Why? "My mind," he snorts. "I got a lot of things on my mind; a lot of things interest me." Henn walks past the Ferrari in the living room of his mansion on Millionaire's Row in Hillsboro Beach. The three-story house fronts the Atlantic; Henn scowls at the bad weather. Then he boots up the computer. "Before it was fashionable, before anyone was doing it, he was reading newspapers off the Internet," notes one of Henn's many political friends, Broward County Commissioner John Rodstrom. Henn skims the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the New York Daily News. The President of the United States hasn't been impeached yet; Henn, an arch Republican, puts on his second scowl of the day.

With a stroke of the computer keyboard, Henn switches over to a remote feed from the 78 security cameras that are sprinkled discreetly throughout the Swap Shop. The Swap Shop is 17 miles away, but suddenly every arriving vendor, every car, every employee is right there on Henn's glowing computer screen. He zooms in on a cash register; he zooms back for a panoramic view of the eastern parking lot.

"I don't ever have to leave my house," Henn explains with diabolical matter-of-factness. "I can sit down at the computer and go into the ticket booth and watch what the guy's doing. I can look at the time clock. I can see the vendors checking in at the reservations desk. I have all of that on an interconnected computer system. Same way with my flea market out in Margate -- it's all hooked up."

Henn doesn't have to leave his house, but he always does. His temperament, not money or technology, prohibits him from governing his retail empire in absentia. Says Bill Markham, long-time Broward County property appraiser: "I thought I was a type A personality until I met Preston Henn." Soon the white-haired, thick-wristed flea market king is wheeling past a hen-shaped mailbox, heading south in his wife's canary-colored sports car. Sometimes he props a lifelike dummy in the passenger seat. "It's not so I can get in the high-speed lane," he insists. "The dummy is so I don't get robbed."

In 1983, in a white Porsche 935, Henn won America's most famous automotive endurance race, the 24 Hours of Daytona. He repeated the performance at Sebring in 1985, and again at Daytona. His teammates included racing legends A.J. Foyt and Al Unser, Sr. In 1984 he placed second at Le Mans, perhaps the last great amateur driver to threaten the pros. "He would have been first, but the French ganged up on him," recalls Fort Lauderdale City Commissioner Jack Latona, a frequent breakfast companion of Henn.

Today Henn refuses to talk about his speed-freak days, which also included several death-defying stabs at offshore powerboat racing. He won't say how he fell into these sports in the first place, though it may relate to his boyhood in the mountains of western North Carolina, where moonshine smugglers gave birth to stock car racing. Nor will he explain why he quit racing, though age seems an obvious answer. "I think he just finally grew some brains is all," says Markham. At any rate, Henn now spends his mornings on a monogrammed golf cart stalking the midways and parking lots of the Swap Shop in jeans and a cowboy hat.

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