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.

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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.

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.

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.

"Why politics?" asks a South Florida political consultant. "That's easy. He's got a relatively objectionable business in an already congested area. He has to pull a lot of strings to keep the place functioning. Politicians want to stay on his good side because he's a significant player with substantial assets involved, and no one knows exactly the extent of them. It's about as blunt as that."

Until 1992, when he finally spent $1 million to build an elevated walkway over Sunrise Boulevard linking two disconnected parking lots, the road in front of Henn's Swap Shop had the highest rate of auto accidents in Broward County, due to customers scurrying across six lanes of traffic out front. While Henn pats himself on the back for building the skywalk, his enemies claim he was able to delay fixing the traffic hazard for years because of friends in high places.

Henn has been close friends with and a political supporter of former Broward sheriff Nick Navarro. Ditto for Ken Jenne, current sheriff. Henn says he met Jenne sometime around 1979, and not without a good reason. At the time Steve Pajcic, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate, had proposed a $10 up-front sales tax levy on flea market vendors. Jenne, Henn says, "introduced me to the right people in Tallahassee, and pretty soon my problem was resolved."

The tax issue resurfaced this spring. Concerned that flea market vendors were dodging state sales taxes, a bill came before the Florida Legislature that would have forced Henn to pay the tax himself. To Henn it was nothing more than a conspiracy of retail-industry competitors seeking to destroy his Swap Shop money machine. This time Broward County Commissioner Lori Parrish appeared before state lawmakers on Henn's behalf. It was a logical choice of lobbyists, since Parrish was already working for him as an "efficiency expert" and continues to do so to this day.

Parrish vehemently denies any conflict of interest in her two jobs, but she's keenly aware of appearances. So keenly aware, in fact, that her secretary at County Hall refuses to take phone messages for her in her capacity as a Swap Shop employee, or even give out the Swap Shop phone number.

An observer of the relationship, speaking on condition of anonymity, explains it this way:

"Preston routinely gets rid of top staff. He acts like a jerk most of the time. He's a bully. He treats his employees like shit, and he treats his vendors worse. He'll fine them for sitting down or getting to the Swap Shop late. If you work for him and you want a Coke while you're on the job, guess what: You gotta pay for it.

"He probably thought he was going to get some political patronage out of [Parrish]. Instead he got an extremely competent manager. He got someone he can't get rid of, because she creates a critical balance between common sense and his own abusive eccentricity. She routinely opposes him, and it's a good thing."

Henn bristles at the suggestion that he's anything but a fair manager of people. Fair, but hard. Asked if he has a hero, he names "Neutron" Jack Welch, the legendarily ruthless CEO of General Electric. Why? "Because he was a tough business manager, and I admire toughness in people. He came in and fired everybody. The buildings were still standing, but all the people were gone."

And politics, as far as Henn sees it, is really just another side of commerce: "I think anybody in business today -- well, let's say I owned the Broward Mall. I would recommend to whoever the hell owns the Broward Mall to be active politically. In other words, to give money to the different people so that when you have a problem, then at least you've got somebody you can call. I think any business owner, no matter how big or small, needs to be active in the political process. Its a case of survival."

Henn continues to occupy a post on the board of directors of the Florida State Fair. The fair takes place in Tampa, where Henn has another flea market. Here at home he serves on Broward's Tourist Development Council. He claims to want less rather than more civic and political involvement. One source suggests that Henn's taste for invisibility might be a case of hurt feelings. He may feel he's not gotten the respect he deserves.

For years Henn's Christmastime float in the Fort Lauderdale boat parade was the grandest of all -- a fantastic series of barges filled with twinkling lights and elephants and tigers. But Henn canceled his entry after animal-rights activists raised a ruckus. Two autumns ago Henn sent giant bouquets of lilies, roses, and hydrangeas to every county commissioner, including four newcomers to the dais. The attached cards read: "Congratulations from the 'flea' office." Reporters wondered in print whether the gifts exceeded the $100 statutory limit. The Swap Shop sits on land in unincorporated Broward County, and its continual renovation and expansion requires all sorts of county permits; were the flowers a ham-handed shot at influence-buying, or a courtly gesture from Broward's last great rogue eccentric?

Markham, the Broward County tax assessor, says he thinks Henn is more a prankster than a cynic and is often misunderstood. But there's a shadow of doubt. In 1968 Markham launched his first campaign. One day he ran into Henn. "I said, 'Man, I'm running for tax assessor, and, if there's anything you can do for me, that would be great,'" Markham remembers. "I gave him a couple of campaign brochures.

"A couple weeks later, I was walking down the street and some people stopped me. They said, 'Do you know what Preston Henn is doing to you?'" Henn, it turned out, had turned the brochures into giant campaign ads, which he flashed on his drive-in screens during intermission at X-rated movies.

It's still unclear whether the tactic almost ruined Markham's political career or saved it. He won by 39 votes. What's surely true is that 30 years later he remains in power. And he counts Preston Henn among his closest friends.

At the height of the Great Depression, two years after Preston Henn was born, the first drive-in movie theater opened for business in Camden, New Jersey. The year was 1933. America's first drive-in experience cost 25 cents and involved a justly forgotten film entitled Wife Beware, starring Adolphe Menjou.

It wasn't until the end of World War II that the drive-in craze took hold. Between 1945 and 1953, 2976 drive-ins were built, including one with airstrips allowing for airborne customers. Meanwhile Henn had graduated from the prestigious McCauley School in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and from Nashville's Vanderbilt University, with a degree in chemical engineering.

Within a month he was bored with chemical engineering. He went home to the mountains of Murphy, North Carolina, to help out in his father's hometown theater business, with misgivings.

"I had enough ego that I didn't want to depend on my father, who -- for Murphy, North Carolina -- was considered a wealthy man," Henn says.

In a pride-salving compromise, Henn the younger leased his own drive-in at nearby Franklin and began a five-year march toward his first million. In retrospect it's easy to see where the bubble broke: By 1958 Henn owned approximately 40 drive-ins throughout the Bible Belt. There were 4063 of them in the United States, but there would never be more. According to the latest economic census figures, only 534 exist today, 25 operating in Florida.

"Television just crucified the small-town theater," Henn recalls. "I went broke."

Like many a debt-encumbered failure before him, Henn followed the sun to South Florida. On the day of John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, he opened the Thunderbird Drive-In west of Fort Lauderdale. The original screen, now number nine, stands near the center of the Swap Shop today.

Before he took over, the drive-in had catered to black moviegoers for 15 years. "At that particular time, you couldn't get anyone else to set foot in what they thought of as a black theater," Henn says. He added an entrance on Sunrise Boulevard, launched an ad campaign, brought in X-rated movies, and jacked up the prices. The race barrier was broken.

Meanwhile he bought up a dozen other drive-ins in Broward and ran the remaining competitors out of business through publicity stunts and advertising blitzes. At one mosquito-infested theater near Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, he installed experimental air-conditioning tubes that could be attached to car windows along with the standard movie sound-speakers.

Except for the single-screen Trail Drive-In in Lake Worth, there are no more drive-in theaters in South Florida -- just Henn's Swap Shop multiplex, which has long since dropped the skin flicks for first-run movies. In the vast scheme of the Swap Shop, revenues from the drive-in are "very minor," Henn notes. The real money comes from a much older idea. Henn first saw the idea in action in San Jose, California -- in what is still the biggest flea market in the land -- and promptly stole it.

"Five or six years ago, I got a call from the people in San Jose," Henn says. "They wanted to fly out and look at my operation. They did. We wined 'em and dined 'em, and they finally got around to asking what everyone always asks: 'How'd ya get the idea in the first place?' I said, 'Ironically, from you.'"

The flea market idea was invented by King Henry II in 12th-century London as a way to get peddlers off crowded streets. It spread through Central Europe, where unsanitary conditions led to the name. Beginning in 1966 Henn set about reinventing the concept, adding country music concerts, stunt weddings, elephants -- anything that would draw the masses. Drawing a crowd, generating a huge volume of bargain shoppers, is the secret to why vendors are willing to pay for space. Keeping the space less costly than a city storefront is what allows merchants to save money on overhead and presumably pass on the savings to customers.

Despite the recent advent of nearby Sawgrass Mills, the world's largest outlet mall, Henn figures he has the low-end retail market cornered.

"We've got a niche that no one will ever touch, because no one's got the outdoor garage sale, and they're not likely to come along and have 80 acres of property and start doing it," he crows.

Trundling past the produce and power-tool vendors on his way to a meeting with his team of tax attorneys, Henn says he thinks he's discovered something more precious, more American, than Ponce de León's mythical fountain of youth. While the Swap Shop may look tacky, may sound loud, may feel hot, Henn believes he's touched the very heart of pure, democratic commerce.

"Have I ever conducted a demographic study of Swap Shop patrons?" he squawks. "Sure! I look at the cars people drive here. And there's no rhyme or reason to it. It's rich people, poor people, marrieds, retirees.

"Most of the TV and radio stations have told me that I am the only person that don't give a shit what the demographics say. We appeal to everybody."

It's always hard to tell how much of what Henn says is theater or calculation -- where the country bumpkin cuts off and the latter-day P.T. Barnum begins. He claims to be on the verge of dumping his last two properties (flea markets in Tampa and Margate) to better focus on the Swap Shop, but he doesn't seem to be in a hurry to do so. Having declared speed lust a thing of the past, Henn confirms that in August he sneaked out to California to drive in a celebrity road race.

He claims to be in his twilight years.
"If I didn't enjoy what I do here, I would never leave Aspen, Colorado," he laments. "There I don't have to drive anywhere. The grocery store, everything is within three or four blocks of my house out there."

How does he pass the time at his Rocky Mountain mansion 1500 miles from the Swap Shop?

Skiing. Reading. And of course watching those 78 interconnected security cameras that appear on his computer screen from not-so-faraway Fort Lauderdale.

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