Local Obituaries

Swap Shop founder, race car driver Preston Henn dead at 86

Swap Shop owner Preston Henn surveys the grounds of his business from his golf cart in this 2005 file photo. Henn maintained the practice for six decades.
Swap Shop owner Preston Henn surveys the grounds of his business from his golf cart in this 2005 file photo. Henn maintained the practice for six decades. Miami Herald file

Preston Henn’s famous Swap Shop just west of Fort Lauderdale first opened as a drive-in movie theater on Nov. 22, 1963 — the day John F. Kennedy was killed.

Ever since, for the next 53 years, Henn’s Swap Shop has become a metropolis, a place that draws some 12 million visitors a year (that’s 32,000 a day). As a tourist attraction, Henn advertises it second only to Disney World — although the owners of Sawgrass Mills in Sunrise make the same claim.

The ornery Henn probably would have relished any debate on the matter.

Henn’s world is an 88-acre place where music stars Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and The Temptations once performed free concerts before crowds of 10,000. Where a circus performed daily. And where a farmer’s market grew so high with fruits and vegetables you’d think every other city’s weekend farmer’s market in Miami-Dade and Broward multiplied and gave birth to the mother of all greenery here.

Here, too, is an indoor, two-story mall that hawks fast food and sells everything from glamor to junk. Outside, under flea market tents, some 2,000 vendors offer jewelry, clothing, shoes, cellphones, toys and tchotchkes. Oh, and that single drive-in screen that beamed the No. 1 box office film the week Kennedy was shot — “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” — is now a 13-screen drive-in that is showing first-run films in South Florida, including “The Fate of the Furious” and “The Boss Baby.”

But for all of that, The Boss Man, Henn, who moved to South Florida in 1962 from the mountains of Murphy, North Carolina, was really the venue’s star attraction. He was a quintessential cowboy in his customary 10-gallon hat, jeans and pressed white shirt who rode around the grounds in a golf cart, woe to any vendor who broke one of his hard-and-fast rules.

He was proud of the empire he’d built — and, of course, a multimillionaire because of it. Long after anyone else would have retired, Henn zipped around his creation starting well before sunrise nearly every day on his cart for six decades. “I could be anywhere I wanna be — I wanna be right here,” Henn told the Sun-Sentinel in 2013.

And now, almost unthinkable, he is gone.

Henn, who also owned flea markets and drive-ins in Lake Worth and Tampa and a $71.5 million Gulfstream G650 executive jet, died at his Hillsboro Beach estate on Sunday. He was 86.

Swap Shop owner Preston Henn rides around in a golf cart early in the morning of July 25, 1996, at the Swap Shop. He maintained that routine for more than 53 years. EMILY MICHOT Miami Herald File

“His life was the Swap Shop. Here’s the amazing part,” his attorney and friend of 40 years Bruce Rogow said Monday: The opportunities Henn provided at the Swap Shop spoke to the Founding Fathers’ vision for the United States. He gave people a place, many of them immigrants, a starting grounds. Through perseverance and hard work, perhaps they, too, could start their own businesses one day, related Rogow, an emeritus professor of law at Nova Southeastern University.

“He always liked hearing that, though he would never admit it. But so many people in South Florida, especially in Broward, got their start at the Swap Shop,” Rogow said of the market that sprawls across Sunrise Boulevard between I-95 and Florida’s Turnpike.

“Law students would tell me they had parents from Pakistan, Cuba, Haiti and India and they would come here to sell their goods. They wouldn’t need overhead and expenses and could save money and open a retail store and their children would end up at law school later. They started at the Swap Shop. This is the thing he should be proudest of. He created opportunities for tens of thousands of those people over these 55 or so years,” said Rogow.

Many times, though, he would need his attorney friends to help him in his legal skirmishes. Henn paid a $5.5 million settlement to Coach in 2013 over counterfeit goods being sold at the Swap Shop. “Just pocket change,” he boasted to the Sentinel. In 2015, Louis Vuitton and Henn finalized a confidential settlement in a trial over designer knockoffs.

The Hanneford Family Circus filed a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Henn in 2005 after he ordered the circus off his grounds. That year, the Broward State Attorney’s office filed a misdemeanor battery charge against Henn, then 74, after a vendor claimed Henn attacked him while he was being evicted.

During the melee, a Broward Sheriff’s Office deputy subdued Henn with a Taser stun gun. Henn, handcuffed and sitting in the back of a patrol car, kicked out one of its windows.

In 2007, the state attorney’s office dropped the misdemeanor battery charges after the vendor said he no longer wanted to pursue the case.

In 2006, Henn had received six months’ probation for the scuffle with BSO, which had used the Baker Act to send Henn for observation to Imperial Point Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale.

The eccentric, crusty mogul saw this as a marketing opportunity.

“INSANE PRICES, CRAZY PRICES. SO LOW THEY THINK WE ARE INSANE!” screamed the lettering in newspaper ads Henn placed for the Swap Shop. Another ad asked: “Is Preston crazy or a fox?”

“Somebody said they thought I was crazy,” Henn told the Herald in 2005. “So if you think I’m crazy, the prices are crazy … It’s advertising.”

Preston Henn sits on his Swap Shop carousel on April 10, 1997. Walter Michot Miami Herald file

Henn lived for a challenge.

In 2014, many theater chains pulled the Seth Rogan-James Franco comedy, “The Interview,” when hackers threatened to bomb theaters that screened the movie. Henn was unbowed. He hired extra security and rode around the grounds on his cart. “Really good PR for the movie,” he told the Herald.

Henn, along with co-drivers A. J. Foyt, Bob Wollek, and Claude Ballot-Lena, drove his Porsche 935 to victory in the 24 Hours of Daytona race in 1983. He made five starts himself at Le Mans, placing 10th that year. Henn also enjoyed offshore powerboat racing and maintained an extensive collection of race cars valued conservatively at $100 million at his private estate and on display at the Swap Shop, the Sentinel reported in 2013.

Henn moved in political circles both at the county and state levels. When Jeb Bush ran for re-election as Florida’s governor in 2002, he made a campaign stop at the Swap Shop, endearing himself to the owner.

“I supported all the Bushes,” Henn told the Herald in 2015, adding he would vote for Jeb Bush’s son, George Prescott Bush, currently commissioner of the Texas General Land Office, should he run for higher office. “If I’m still alive, I’ll vote for him.”

Henn grew up in Murphy and, before earning a degree in chemical engineering from Vanderbilt University, worked for his father, Preston J. Henn, who owned movie theaters and ran one into his 90s. The senior Henn died at 98 in 2004.

Preston Henn shows off his Swap Shop’s drive-in in 2003. Walter Michot Miami Herald file

“I think his father was a big impetus in his wanting to be successful,” said Rogow. “He felt competitive with his father. He had courage and guts and took risks.”

That bravado brought Henn access to Nashville royalty, which helped him lure former A-listers to perform at the Swap Shop. He schmoozed with artists’ managers backstage at the Country Music Association Awards. In 1997, he told the Herald how he flew his private plane to pick up Willie Nelson in the Cayman Islands for a weekend show a couple years earlier at the Swap Shop. “Flew him out to Texas afterward,” he said. “This was a failed drive-in when I bought it, and it took awhile to get going,” Henn recalled at the time.

“In his life he had an idea and acted on that idea,” Rogow said. “And whatever risks that entailed didn’t faze him. Most of his adventures turned out all right.”

Henn is survived by his wife Betty; his children Byron, Jeff and Cathy Henn and Chrisy Cathers; 11 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by daughter Bonnie Henn Ryan. Henn’s will stipulated the Swap Shop will remain family-run for at least 20 years after his death.

Services have not been set.

Howard Cohen: 305-376-3619, @HowardCohen