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.

Henn has been close friends with -- and a political supporter of -- former Broward sheriff Nick Navarro. Ditto for Ken Jenne, current sheriff. Then there's Broward County Commissioner Lori Parrish, who has lobbied state lawmakers on Henn's behalf. Parrish, who works for Henn as an "efficiency expert," denies any conflict of interest, but she's keenly aware of appearances. So keenly aware that her secretary at county hall refuses to take phone messages for her in her capacity as a Swap Shop employee, or to 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 [should] be active politically ... [and] 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. It's a case of survival."

Henn is on the board of directors of the Florida State Fair. The fair takes place in Tampa, where Henn has another flea market. He also serves on Broward's Tourist Development Council, though he claims to want less civic and political involvement. One source suggests that Henn's taste for invisibility might be a case of hurt feelings. He may think he hasn't received the respect he deserves.

For years Henn's Christmas float in the Fort Lauderdale boat parade was the grandest of all, a fantastic series of barges filled with twinkling lights and live 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 Broward 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, 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. 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 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 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. Tickets cost 25 cents for the justly forgotten film titled 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. 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 drive-in theater business. "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.

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