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.

In a pride-salving compromise, Henn the younger leased a drive-in at nearby Franklin and began a five-year march toward his first million. By 1958 Henn owned approximately 40 drive-ins throughout the Bible Belt. There were 4063 of them in the United States, but there would never be more. According to the latest economic census figures, only 534 exist today, 25 in Florida.

"Television just crucified the small-town theater," Henn recalls. "I went broke."

Like many a debt-encumbered failure before him, Henn followed the sun to South Florida. On the day in 1963 of John F. Kennedy's assassination in Dallas, he opened the Thunderbird Drive-In west of Fort Lauderdale. The original screen, now number nine, stands near the center of the Swap Shop today.

Before he took over the drive-in had catered to black moviegoers for fifteen years. "At that particular time you couldn't get anyone else to set foot in what they thought of as a black theater," Henn says. He added an entrance on Sunrise Boulevard, launched an ad campaign, brought in X-rated movies, and jacked up the prices. The race barrier was broken.

Meanwhile he bought a dozen other drive-ins in Broward and ran the remaining competitors out of business. His tools were publicity stunts and advertising blitzes. At one mosquito-infested theater near Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, he installed experimental air-conditioning tubes that could be attached to car windows along with the standard speakers.

Except for the single-screen Trail Drive-In in Lake Worth, there are no drive-in theaters in South Florida other than Henn's Swap Shop multiplex, which has long since dropped the skin flicks for first-run movies. In the vast scheme of the place, revenues from the drive-in are "very minor," Henn declares. The real money comes from a much older idea. Henn first saw the idea in San Jose, California (in what is still the biggest flea market in the land) and promptly stole it.

"Five or six years ago I got a call from the people in San Jose," Henn says. "They wanted to fly out and look at my operation. They did. We wined 'em and dined 'em, and they finally got around to asking what everyone always asks: 'How'd ya get the idea in the first place?' I said, 'Ironically, from you.'"

The flea market idea was invented by King Henry II in twelfth-century London as a way to get peddlers off crowded streets. It spread through central Europe, where unsanitary conditions led to the name. Beginning in 1966 Henn set about reinventing the concept, adding country music concerts, stunt weddings, elephants, anything that would draw the masses. Attracting a crowd -- generating a huge volume of bargain shoppers -- is the secret to bringing in vendors. Keeping the space less costly than a city storefront allows merchants to save money on overhead and presumably pass savings on to customers.

Despite nearby Sawgrass Mills, the world's largest outlet mall, Henn figures he has the low-end retail market cornered.

"We've got a niche that no one will ever touch, because no one's got an outdoor garage sale [like this], and they're not likely to come along and have 80 acres of property and start doing it," he crows.

Trundling past the produce and power-tool vendors on his way to a meeting with his team of tax attorneys, Henn says he thinks he's discovered something more precious, more American, than Ponce de Leon's mythical fountain of youth. While the Swap Shop may look tacky, may be loud, may feel hot, Henn believes he has touched the very heart of democratic commerce.

"Have I ever conducted a demographic study of Swap Shop patrons?" he squawks. "Sure! I look at the cars people drive here. And there's no rhyme or reason to it. It's rich people, poor people, marrieds, retirees. Most of the TV and radio stations have told me I am the only person that don't give a shit what the demographics say. We appeal to everybody."

It's always hard to tell how much of what Henn says is theater or calculation, where the country bumpkin cuts off and the P.T. Barnum begins. He says he's on the verge of dumping flea markets in Tampa and Margate to better focus on the Swap Shop, but he doesn't seem to be in a hurry to do so. Although he declared speed-lust a thing of the past, Henn confirms that in August he sneaked out to California to drive in a celebrity road race. He claims to be in his twilight years.

"If I didn't enjoy what I do here, I would never leave Aspen, Colorado," he swears. "There I don't have to drive anywhere. The grocery store, everything, is within three or four blocks of my house."

How does he pass the time at his Rocky Mountain mansion 1800 miles from the Swap Shop? Skiing. Reading. And of course watching those 78 interconnected security cameras that appear on his computer screen from not-so-faraway Fort Lauderdale.

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