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Fort Lauderdale's Swap Shop Offers a Shopping Experience Unlike Any Other
If you have spent any considerable time in Broward, chances are you’ve heard of the Swap Shop. Perhaps you remember the TV ads with the grammatically incorrect but memorable slogan (Where’s the bargains-at the Swap Shop). Maybe you have driven past the sprawling compound on Sunrise Boulevard and were intrigued by the drive-in screens, massive American and Florida flags, and a walkway over the road with a tin man and pirate standing above the cars. Or of you are the more adventurous type you may have actually taken in the sights, sounds, and smells of the longtime landmark.
The Swap Shop began as the Thunderbird Drive-in, started in 1963 by Preston Henn and his wife Betty. Henn began his career by leasing one of his father’s drive-in theaters in his native North Carolina after graduating college. The junior Henn demonstrated a Midas-like entrepreneurial ability and soon owned numerous locations throughout the Southeastern United States. It is rumored that the theaters became profitable by showing X-rated films that were forbidden from mainstream theaters in those more innocent of times. Henn later added a flea market to the Thunderbird that blossomed in popularity and soon became one of the largest in the world.
Henn’s successes allowed him to purchase the type of toys that most of us can only dream about. In 2013 he bought a brand new Gulfstream G650 jet and lives in a mansion on Lighthouse Point’s posh Millionaire’s Row. In his younger days he was well known in the offshore powerboat and car racing communities. He has not raced since the 1980’s but still owns a breathtaking collection of exotic cars and racing memorabilia which is displayed at the Swap Shop for the public to enjoy.
The speed-loving businessman has not been free of controversy, however. He was notoriously defiant against animal rights adovocates that frequently protested the circus that performed at the Swap Shop for years prior to 2005. The same year that the circus was evicted from the premises Henn was involved in a standoff with the Broward Sheriff’s Office that resulted in him being arrested (read more about this incident here). In recent years Henn has been the target of lawsuits regarding the sale of knockoff designer goods by vendors.
Shopping in South Florida is typically associated with upscale boutique shops and high-end malls such as the Galleria and Sawgrass Mills. The Swap Shop however is a shopping destination of a much different kind. Instead of shops displaying designer clothing and expensive home goods, here you will find an eclectic smorgasbord of every kind of merchandise from porn DVD’s and smoking accessories to Oriental-themed nick-knacks. The atmosphere is not clean, modern, and fashionable but quirky and accessible.
Upon arrival, most visitors will park in the large parking lot across the street from the main complex and take the elevated walkway over Sunrise Boulevard. Once across the street you will walk into the second floor of the main two-story building and immediately mesmerized by the kaleidoscope-like array of vendors selling their wares. This portion of the facility is occupied by vendors that have permanent businesses at the market and sell mostly artwork and furniture. A vendor known as “The Man Cave”, located about halfway down the corridor upon entering, is certainly one of the most interesting booths in the entire Swap Shop. Here one will find painted metal signs of varying tastefulness, tomahawks, Japanese throwing stars, and a huge selection of knives among other similarly-themed items.
In the downstairs portion are more vendors pedaling wares of a slightly different variety, such as electronics, perfume, and clothing. Also in this area is a food court featuring several independent restaurants offering a variety of cuisine from around the world, albeit in a very no-frills setting. Prices are generally on the affordable side.
Much of the space on the first floor is taken up by Preston Henn’s collection of exotic cars, which is said to be one of the most desirable in the world. Ferraris make up the greatest portion of the collection, which should be come as no surprise. Mr. Henn is a longtime customer and one of only a few owners given the privilege to take their state-of-the-art Ferrari FXX racecar home with them (most other owners must keep their prize vehicles at Ferrari-approved garages). Henn’s Porsche 952 and 956 from his racing days are frequently on display, as are many other highly coveted vehicles. Some of the vehicles are now displayed in the center of the building in the space that was once occupied by the ousted circus.
Stepping into the open-air section of the market one is immersed once again in a sea of booths offering an even more eclectic array of goods and services. Everything from massages to Buddha statues is represented although clothing and auto accessories seem to be the most common offerings. Airbrushed T-shirts and bathing suits can be purchased next to clothing from far-off corners of the globe. High-tech car stereo systems complete with ear-splitting subwoofers are offered at several stalls as are alarms and other items to give your vehicle a personalized touch. Some visitors may be surprised or shocked to see the presence of smoke shops with hookahs and water bongs on display. A farmer’s market where vendors sell produce as well as house plants and flowers is popular with visitors as well.
Visitors with kids will likely want to stop by Uncle Bernie’s amusement park, located next to the farmer’s market where there are carnival rides such as bumper boats and a small Ferris wheel. After the rides, grab some of the best Mexican street tacos in Ft. Lauderdale and a cold beer at Las Reynas Mexican restaurant, which is located outdoors near the farmer’s market. Based on experience this is the place to eat while visiting the Swap Shop.
Behind the indoor and outdoor flea market areas is a large parking lot which at night serves as the drive-in theater. The yellow screen in the middle of the lot is the original 1963 Thunderbird screen and the name is still evident on a vintage-looking neon sign. Thirteen other screens allow multiple films to be shown at one time and audio is provided through low-power FM radio transmitters. During the day this lot is used by people setting up for the day to sell merchandise. While most are in effect having a garage sale at a centralized location some are aspiring entrepreneurs that have yet to graduate to a permanent spot at the flea market. A few vendors also operate out of old shipping containers amidst the movie screens and include several electronics repair shops and a bike shop.
If you have never been to the Swap Shop before, hopefully this post will inspire you to have a fun relaxing day and find a few bargains while supporting local small business owners. If you have been but not in a while, you know what to expect should you decide to return, as changes have been many in recent years. And for those that make a regular pilgrimage, well, thanks for reading.