The Sultan of Swap

He's a genius, a trickster, and a rogue. Preston Henn is also owner of one of the world's biggest flea markets.

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 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 per week customers in cars line Sunrise Boulevard just west of I-95, waiting to pay $3.50 apiece and watch the latest Hollywood (California, that is) spectacles on thirteen open-air screens.

The round-the-clock bedlam 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 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 time of day: He gets a cut of the revenues from fifteen 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 at 25 cents a head.

Fall is slow at the Swap Shop, and rain is disastrous. But on a recent morning, Henn rose at 3:00 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 turns on the computer. "Before it was fashionable, before anyone was doing it, he was reading newspapers off the Internet," says 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, a serious Republican, puts on his second scowl of the day.

With a stroke on the keyboard, Henn switches over to a remote feed from the 78 security cameras that are sprinkled discreetly throughout the Swap Shop. The place is seventeen miles away, but suddenly every vendor, every car, every employee is right there on Henn's glowing computer screen. He zooms in on a cash register; he zooms out for a panoramic view of the east 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, go into the ticket booth, and watch what the guy's doing. I can look at the timeclock. I can see the vendors checking in at the reservation 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, precludes 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-shape mailbox, heading south in his wife's canary-color 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. "It's so I don't get robbed."

In 1983, in a white Porsche 935, Henn won one of America's most famous automotive endurance races, 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. "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 runners 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 lose their bearings. The indoor market alone contains two automatic teller machines, a car dealership, a real estate office, a video arcade, a place to buy rebuilt slot machines, and innumerable blinking stands and screeching, yammering vendors displaying samurai swords, cut-rate lingerie, custom license plates, and cheap watches. It also houses an immigration lawyer, who does a brisk business catering to customers from Haiti, Pakistan, and a dozen other countries. "Other attorneys have high-rise towers and walnut furniture, and you pay for it," says Robert Wettergreen, a paralegal. "Here you don't."

1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
All
 
Next Page »
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Miami Concert Tickets
Loading...