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.

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 one of Mexican corrida; both turn the volume up louder and louder, drowning out the nearby specialist in wind chimes. Another entrepreneur sells erotic videos out of a garage-size steel shipping container, and still another trades only in tarps and tape. A forlorn-looking woman offers her entire inventory on a 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 per day at the Swap Shop. Henn says he spends $1.25 million on this promotional device, which includes a trapeze act, a clown, acrobatic elephants, illusionists, and a performing terrier that 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 and roll." 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, having 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. He just doesn't care to.

In 1988 Henn showed up at the Marriott Hotel on the 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 leg. There was Bush, and there, next to Henn, sat the director of the local Salvation Army and the 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 damn 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?' Whoever he's yelling at looks like he wants to melt into the floor, but he says, 'Why?' Preston screams: 'Cause it might lead to dancing!'"

Henn backed Jeb Bush for governor but protests that he's not really involved in politics "except dollarwise." 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 he concedes that most of his political involvement traces directly back to the Swap Shop and has little to do with abstract ideals.

"He's got a relatively objectionable business in an already congested area," says a South Florida political consultant. "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 and no one knows exactly the extent of them. It's about as blunt as that."

Until 1992, when he finally spent one million dollars to build an elevated walkway over Sunrise Boulevard linking two parking lots, the road next to the Swap Shop had one of the highest rates of auto accidents in South Florida. While Henn praises himself for building the skywalk, his enemies claim he was able to delay fixing the traffic hazard for years because of friends in high places.

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