Almost every South Floridian knows what’s inside that massive bright yellow and red building at 3291 W. Sunrise Blvd. in Fort Lauderdale — it’s the Swap Shop, a daily flea market that spills out into a vast parking lot. Among the world's largest, it serves as a tourist destination for those visiting the Sunshine State. However, locals know the Swap Shop — open daily — is far zanier than tourists might think. And that’s exactly what makes it an entertaining visit time and time again.
Not only is the Swap Shop a veritable history museum, but it is itself a work of art. And there's truly nothing like it. Founded in 1963 by Preston Henn, an American entrepreneur, it was at first a drive-in theater. Now it serves as South Florida’s very own Dada-esque masterpiece, a puzzling yet fascinating collection of utter randomness and chaos. Don’t try to decipher it or search for meaning. Instead, take it all in and appreciate what you find — as you would with any work of fine art.
Signs for Every Type of Person
One of the largest shops on the building’s second floor sells signs. As you peruse the merchandise, you'll find yourself trying to imagine the type of person who'd buy this sign or that one. Some are seemingly pointless, like the bright yellow one that reads, “Caution: Do not drink water. Fish crap in it.” Then there are the yard signs for paranoid gun owners: “No trespassing. Are you going to listen to me in English, or do I have to speak to you in 12 gauge?” See? Plenty of gems just waiting to be taken home! A favorite? “I’ll listen to country music if you clean up the vomit.”
Kitschy Kitchen Décor
The same vendor who sells the weapons further down this list also peddles wacky kitchen décor. Who would’ve thought? The main two types of décor sold here are salt and pepper shaker holders and liquor-bottle holders. They look like something you’d find in an Orlando gift shop, but maybe that’s their appeal. Most are animal-themed. There’s an alligator head holding a bottle of tequila in its mouth, a shark with salt and pepper shakers in its fins — and similar holders shaped like eagles and bears. One of the more striking pieces is a grim reaper holding two wine glasses with space for a full bottle in the middle. At his feet are skulls that complete the edgy, gothic look. Cool if you’re into that sort of thing. Its price: $79.99.
When it all seems hopeless, and there is nowhere left to turn, turn off Sunrise Boulevard into the Swap Shop. Here, you’ll find your answers. Inside, near the food court stands Zoltar, the fortune teller in a box, offering his wondrous services for a buck. “Could $1 change your life?” the mannequin asks, staring out from behind the glass with his gold chains and impressive mustache.
If you prefer to invest the funds from your spiritual budget in guidance from an actual human being, the flea market has that too. Laxmi Kanth Ji claims to be a world-famous Indian astrologer and psychic reader who can “remove any kind of black magic, spells or negative energy.” Her services include palm, face, and fate readings — and a "100% guarantee." Her booth is located in the parking lot in the outdoor flea market, and her number is 754-304-7614. She accepts walk-ins and appointments.
Neon Signs — Everywhere
Georges Claude invented neon signs in 1910, but if you wander through the Swap Shop, you might think Henn, founder of the Swap Shop, was the initiator. He loved neon signs. In fact, you can spot them in just about every crevice and on every wall in the place. There are classic, nostalgic ones, like the blazing red “$wap” and the icy blue “Thunderbird,” both in trademark fonts. There are also strange ones like the mysterious green “Vitamins-Drugs” hanging by the arcade and the partially lit signs from local news outlets like the Miami Herald and WSVN.
Weapons, Weapons, and More Weapons
Are you in desperate need of a katana? What about brass knuckles or throwing stars? For some reason, if you answered yes, you’ll be overjoyed with the boundless options at the Swap Shop. All sorts of knives with creative designs and engravings are displayed beneath signs that read “Have a knife day!” and “Gang discounts.” This particular shop owner clearly has a sense of humor as there are blank-firing pistols next to signs that declare “Felons, 10% off (mug shot required).” The weaponry here isn’t limited to guns and knives. There are handcuffs, pepper spray, stun guns, machetes, axes, swords, and even a Wolverine glove with what appears to be real blades between the fingers. Talk about hardcore.
Glimpses of the Swap Shop in Its Glory Days
Although the Swap Shop possesses a timeless quirk and charm, there's no denying it was an even grander spectacle during its heyday. The 88-acre entertainment complex started off humbly as Thunderbird Drive-In, a movie theater with one screen. Henn upgraded his passion project over the years, adding the beloved flea market, a food court, go-cart racing, an arcade, a carnival, a farmers' market, and even a circus. Throughout the ‘90s and the early 2000s, the Swap Shop hosted the Hanneford Family Circus, complete with elephants, tigers, acrobats, and clowns. Country singer Willie Nelson, disco-funk group KC and the Sunshine Band, and more performed center-stage for screaming fans. And Uncle Bernie’s Amusement Park offered carnival rides and fun for the whole family. The circus is long gone, concerts are no longer hosted, and most carnival rides have fallen into disrepair. But by playing your own game of I Spy, you can still catch glimpses of what this magnificent place was like.
Lost and Forgotten '90s Memorabilia
One of the first things you see when you walk into the Swap Shop from the second-floor bridge entrance is John Travolta’s face. For unexplainable reasons, there are two walls dedicated to ‘90s memorabilia. One of them is a poster of Travolta and Christian Slater’s 1996 film Broken Arrow. Adjacent to the eerie, sun-damaged poster is a huge snow globe, a promotional piece for Nicolas Cage’s 1994 comedy Trapped in Paradise (which has a ten percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — like most of Cage’s films). The most curious piece of all is the “mirror, mirror on the wall” (a McDonald’s mirror). The large purple monster holding it is Grimace, a character the fast-food firm used during the ‘80s and ‘90s in marketing campaigns.
Random Assortments of Items
Perhaps the best thing about the Swap Shop is the random assortments of items found throughout the colossal building. At every turn, there are oddities. It’s like stepping into an art museum that was created to disorient its visitors. There's no logic behind the random assortments of junk. It simply exists to exist. A poetic disorder.
Swap Shop. 3291 W. Sunrise Blvd., Fort Lauderdale; 954-791-7927; floridaswapshop.com. Monday through Wednesday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.
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