Crazy Like a Henn

Swap Shop owner Preston Henn is having a difficult time convincing others he's still got a grip

As the sun rose on Thursday, August 11, however, that happy arrangement came to a screeching halt.

Victoria Hanneford says that on that day, at 6 a.m., she and her employees were awakened by an irate Henn banging on their trailer doors and demanding that they get off his property or face fines. Other circus employees said that "his goons" were beating their trucks and motor homes with sticks in an effort to hasten the Hannefords' departure.

By midafternoon, every piece of Hanneford property remaining at the Swap Shop was covered in bright pink and orange tow-away stickers, and many of the Hanneford vehicles had been booted.

The circus in happier times
Colby Katz
The circus in happier times
The stickers that helped send the circus packing
The stickers that helped send the circus packing

Meanwhile, a circus of a different kind materialized. Television news vans descended on the Swap Shop as dark thunderheads gathered in the late summer sky.

The trouble had started two weeks earlier, when Henn stopped paying the circus for its services. Henn says that he stopped paying because the Hannefords' workers' compensation insurance had expired in May and his contract with them required such coverage. According to Henn, this requirement stems from an incident ten years ago when one of the Hanneford acrobats was seriously injured during a performance. He says he had to foot a $100,000 medical bill because the circus didn't have coverage, and soon after, he altered the contract to require insurance.

When the coverage ran out, Henn says, he repeatedly demanded that the circus find new coverage, and when it didn't, he had no choice but to evict the performers and their elephants, tigers, and horses.

Hanneford attorney David Bercuson, one of Miami's more prominent entertainment lawyers, doesn't dispute that the Hannefords' workers' compensation insurance had run out. But he says renewing it made no sense because of a change in state law. A new statute changed the definition of which independent contractors are eligible for workers' compensation, and circus performers were left out of the definition. Bob Lotane, spokesman for the Florida State Department of Financial Services, confirms that circus performers are no longer eligible under the new definition.

But Bercuson is quick to point out that the circus performers are more than adequately covered by insurance provided by an independent circus producers association. He claims that this coverage gives the Hanneford performers "better coverage than workers' compensation gives them."

The Hannefords are suing Henn for the balance of their contract, which runs through November, as well as for damage to some of their vehicles and property that occurred during the eviction.

Regardless of the legal outcome, Henn says he is "tickled to death" that the circus is gone and has no interest in finding a new one.

Besides the "rats and roaches" that he says the circus brought, animal rights protesters who held a near constant vigil outside the Swap Shop are also no longer a problem for him.

"I get bullshit letters every day," Henn says of the activists, "saying 'Thank you, thank you for getting rid of the circus — now we can come to the Swap Shop,' which is all bullshit. I hated them, still do."

The Hannefords have taken their act on the road and were recently performing with their elephants in Pennsylvania. They plan to return to Florida soon, however, to take their place in the Winterfest Christmas boat parade, which they used to participate in at their own expense on behalf of the Swap Shop. This time, they'll float on a barge sponsored by a Broward roofing contractor while their acrobats, clowns, and jugglers gyrate for the masses.

On a recent Saturday while piloting a golf cart through his flea market empire, Henn acted incredulous when asked if the loss of the circus had affected business. He turned the cart around and headed straight for his office, where he produced a giant color photo of the Swap Shop dated 1975, well before the circus came to town.

The photo was taken from a helicopter looking straight down on the sprawling mass of sun-baked commerce. The place was packed. Thousands of people, cars, and vendor stalls jammed nearly every available foot of cement.

"You see?" he asked, an impish smile playing under his thin white beard. "We just don't need them to bring people in here. Never have."

Many of the hundreds of vendors who depend on the Swap Shop for their livelihoods disagree. A constant refrain among them — from the single-table video and CD sellers to the comparatively large jewelry and electronics dealers — is that this is one of the worst years in Swap Shop history and that the departure of the circus has made things worse. Much worse.

"It's been so slow since the circus left," said a woman who, like dozens of other vendors interviewed for this article, didn't want her name used, mostly out of fear of retaliation by Henn. As she spoke, she stood under a large tent where she sells T-shirts, three for $10. "Those people were such a big draw. Now?" she shrugged. "It's been dead."

The vendors also complain of a marked increase in the number and size of fines levied against them by Henn's Swap Shop employees. The fines have always been a way to make sure that vendors comply with certain rules so that the free-market jumble that is the Swap Shop can remain functional.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help