Crazy Like a Henn

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

A vendor can be fined for not opening by a certain time or for parking a delivery truck or car in the wrong place or for leaving piles of trash, boxes, or merchandise where they shouldn't be.

Some of the violations and their penalties are outlined explicitly in the one-page contracts that vendors must sign to operate at the Swap Shop. Most vendors New Times spoke to said they had no problems with the restrictions, which carried penalties of $25 to $50. But in recent months, Henn began handing out fines of $300 to $500.

Freddy Reyes is just one of the vendors shocked by skyrocketing fines. A 36-year-old Colombian émigré, Reyes has sold toys at the Swap Shop for four years. A few weeks ago, he was stunned when he found that he'd received a $500 fine for opening his store late. The contract that he signed — which he keeps folded in the back pocket of his jeans — states that the penalty for such a violation is $25.

The circus in happier times
The circus in happier times

"Doesn't say anything about $500 on here," he said, smoothing the crumpled piece of paper on a picnic bench at the Swap Shop's western edge. "Only $25."

He is also angered by the fact that he's paid his rent through the end of the month but Swap Shop management won't let him open until he pays his fine.

"If I open, they'll come and close me down," he said. "But I don't want to cave because that's taking money from my kids."

Before this, the largest fine Reyes had received was $100 for not opening on Christmas. "Nobody comes in on December 25, so [Henn] fined us all."

A vendor who keeps shop near Reyes selling porn DVDs seemed equally mystified by the spike in the size of fines. "There were always fines, sure," he said in a soft Trinidadian lilt, a row of solid-gold teeth glinting as he spoke. "Fifty dollar, $75 fines I can understand, but $500, $1,000? We can't afford that."

He gestures at a boarded-up stall across the way. "This guy just closed down because he couldn't afford to pay the fees, and he's been here for years."

"Five-hundred-dollar fines for everything!" says another irate vendor of car stereo equipment. "Park in the wrong place, $500 fine. Open a little late, $500 fine. We even had to open the day [Hurricane] Rita hit. It didn't used to be this way."

In addition to the swelling fines, Henn has instituted new parking fees for vendors. Until recently, vendors were required to pay for parking only on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday. Now it's every day.

The vendors are convinced that Henn is trying to make up for the lost circus revenue by bleeding them dry. Henn dismisses the complaints as the grumbling of malcontents.

"To the vendors, every year is the worst year and business always sucks," he says. "The truth is that we've never had a 'worst year. '"

Henn denies that he's increased fine amounts or their frequency. "We give them fair warning, often giving them three, four chances before we write them up."

For his part, Reyes had had enough and was planning to leave the Swap Shop. He'd already removed the merchandise from his store, saying that Swap Shop management was known for confiscating vendor wares.

"Everybody's too scared to say something, but I don't care anymore."

He nodded toward a reed-thin woman with dark skin standing in a booth surrounded by luggage. "See that lady over there? She paid the $500 and she was crying the day it happened. She's all alone. Look at her now. No customers."

The same week that Henn stopped paying the Hannefords, construction began on the 100-plus-acre park — imaginatively named Central Regional Park by the county — that will abut his property. A spokesman for property appraiser Parrish denied that construction of the park would have any effect on the value of Henn's land. It's hard to imagine, however, that such an addition to the neighborhood wouldn't have a positive effect.

Former Fort Lauderdale Commissioner Tim Smith, for example, came under fire when investment properties he owned shot up in value after he approved a parks project in the same neighborhood. Critics attributed Smith's personal windfall to the addition of the green spaces.

Citing ethical obligations, no independent property appraiser would comment on the record as to the possible effect the park's construction would have on Henn's property. One such appraiser did say, however, that the addition of a park could increase the Swap Shop's value by as much as 30 percent.

For the short term, at least, it would seem that Henn is staying put. When Hurricane Wilma tore through the Swap Shop, doing more than a million dollars in damage, including wrecking almost all of the drive-in screens, Henn immediately began to rebuild.

Recently, in the northeastern corner of the Swap Shop, a tremendous pile of twisted metal frames, awnings, roofing tiles, and other storm detritus was being sorted by men who had stripped off their shirts in the unseasonable warmth.

In the labyrinth of stalls on the Swap Shop's west side, vendors patched roofs and rearranged merchandise around bent support poles.

Henn, meanwhile, assured New Times that he's often misunderstood by those who underestimate his stamina and smarts. "If I'm buying property or [in] any kind of business deal, people think that I can't think because I talk slow," he says.

"They think they can outsmart me, and I always end up throwing it back in their face."

« Previous Page
My Voice Nation Help