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 the west side of the sprawling market, near the canopied stalls full of hollering electronics merchants, a woman stops Henn to ask where the hairbrushes are. He scratches his chin and admits he doesn't know. The Swap Shop has grown so vast that adults as well as children sometimes lose their bearings in it. The indoor market alone contains two ATMs, a car dealership, a real estate office, a video arcade, a place to buy rebuilt slot machines, and innumerable blinking stands with screeching, yammering vendors displaying samurai swords, cut-rate lingerie, custom license plates, and cheap wristwatches. It also contains an immigration lawyer, who does a brisk business catering to customers from Haiti, Pakistan, and a dozen more countries. "Other attorneys have high-rise towers and walnut furniture, and you pay for it," says Robert Wettergreen, a paralegal. "Here you don't."

The indoor market is a model of peace and order compared to what lies outside. Here a vendor of gospel music cassettes is warring with a seller of Mexican corrida music, both turning up the volume louder and louder, drowning out the nearby specialist in wind chimes. Another entrepreneur sells erotic videos out of a steel shipping container the size of a garage, and another does trade only in tarps and tape. A forlorn-looking woman offers her entire inventory on a dinner place mat: six plastic coffee percolator caps. The no-frills, rough-and-tumble commerce reflects Henn's complicated personality.

Under normal circumstances the Hanneford Family Circus performs two or three times a day at the Swap Shop. Henn says he spends $1.25 million on this promotional device, which includes a trapeze act, a clown reputed to be the best in North and South America, acrobatic elephants, illusionists, and a performing terrier who salsas to a song called "El Baile de los Perritos" (The Dance of the Little Dogs). But this afternoon there's something quite different going on in the circus ring. The Florida Philharmonic Orchestra has come to bring classical music to the masses. Preston Henn stands up in his cowboy hat. He introduces the musicians in his wheezy drawl.

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After wrapping up Rossini's William Tell overture, conductor Duilio Dobrin agrees that the hubbub from the nearby food court makes for the worst acoustics he has ever encountered in his life. Nonetheless he declares the show a smash. "We have people out here with no musical culture whatsoever exposed for the first time to music other than electrically produced rock 'n' roll," he notes. What does Dobrin, a rank newcomer to Swap Shop culture, think of his new patron?

Striving for diplomacy, in an accent redolent of the Rhine, Dobrin says of Henn: "If I were to see him walking down the street, I'd say this is a man from some remote community not used to the rigors and the life of a big city. He was telling me he would like to attend concerts at the Broward Center For the Performing Arts but he doesn't have a thing to wear. The understatement of everything he does! The simplicity! It's, uh, something we should think about. Perhaps we don't agree 100 percent with his ways, but there's something to be said about avoiding fancy furs and expensive cars."

Earlier a veteran popcorn vendor watched Henn introduce the orchestra. As the musicians finished their first number, the popcorn man seemed beside himself. "My God, that was amazing!" he exclaimed. What? The music? The bizarre prospect of the Philharmonic, faced with an eroding audience and budget, forced to acknowledge Preston Henn's ability to draw a crowd? "No!" said the employee. "It's Henn! All these years, that's the first time I've ever heard him speak publicly."

Of course Henn is pulling the orchestra conductor's leg. He's playing the dumb country boy, one of his favorite personas. In reality he owns more than a few expensive cars and could certainly find something to wear to a concert if he cared to. But he doesn't care to.

In 1988 a rather voluminous Henn showed up at the Marriott Hotel on Fort Lauderdale Beach for a black-tie George Bush fundraiser. He was wearing a tuxedo jacket and a pair of jeans to which he had glued strips of black satin down each outer leg. There was Bush, and there, next to Henn, sat the director of the local Salvation Army and O.S. Hawkins, pastor of the First Baptist Church.

"Preston used to take a drink pretty good," says a friend who also attended the fundraiser. "So there he is, sitting right in front of the head table with those damned cowboy boots on, right next to this Baptist minister he hadn't been introduced to.

"All of a sudden, someone walks in and Preston starts yelling at him across the room: 'Hey! You know why Baptists don't have sex standing up?' The person he's yelling at looks like he wants to melt into the floor, but he replies, 'Why?' Preston screams: ''Cause it might lead to dancing!'"

These days Henn is backing Jeb Bush for governor. How much will he and his various Swap Shop-related corporations wind up contributing to the campaign? "Not enough," he says. "I'd like to give more." Henn protests that he's not really involved in politics, "except dollarwise." When pressed he admits this is like saying he never swims, except when doing the backstroke, crawl, breaststroke, or butterfly. Upon request Henn packs his world-view in a nutshell: "The Democrats, nationally, will try to tax all your money away and then give it to somebody that don't want to work." But as he himself concedes, most of his political involvement traces directly back to the Swap Shop and has little to do with abstract ideals.

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