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The Swap Shop


Everything is big at the Swap Shop. If it's not big, it's cheap. If it's not cheap, it's at least plentiful.

Here, ordinary folks can set up their garage sale items on the grounds of what the owners promote as the second most popular tourist attraction in the state. Disney is, of course, the biggest. Many arrive at the Swap Shop by 5 a.m., set up shortly after. By 10 a.m., they're already leaving. Any day of the week, the Swap Shop is an adventure. That may be why 12 million people visit every year.

Sometimes the division between new and old merchandise seems mighty blurry. But there's no doubt the sheer volume of merchandise is big. If there's one Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt for sale here, there are 100,000. The same goes for neckties and tube socks, cologne and wristwatches. There's also an entire area devoted to fresh produce, stacks and stacks of mangoes and tomatoes, plantains and peaches.

You can buy a First Communion dress ($22), a coffeepot ($15), two bouquets of fresh mums ($5) or five T-shirts ($10). The Swap Shop may be the only place where you can buy an adult video and get a new set of acrylic nails. This is truly one-stop shopping.

The word "free" seems out of place when talking about the Swap Shop because the entire reason for its being is the exchange of money.

But admission is free, unless you choose to park closer to the action. The circus is free, unless you choose to watch from the preferred seating area. (Where you also must avoid the women hawking circus coloring books and glow sticks.) And of course you pay to watch a movie.

When Preston and Betty Henn opened in 1963, the place was known as the Thunderbird Drive-In. In 1966, the Henns opened up the grounds for a weekend flea market and the Swap Shop just grew and grew and grew.

The merchandise for sale is not nearly as interesting as the people who sell and buy.

Barbara Donnelly drives from Boca to the Swap Shop twice a year to stock up on socks and T-shirts for her four children. She found tennis socks, six pairs for $3. One of her sons bought a $100 fishing reel for just $20.

"I come her looking for deals," said Donnelly.

There also seem to be a lot of folks who are embarrassed about their Swap Shop shopping. Several shoppers declined to be interviewed.

"Every day's like an adventure because you never know what you're going to find," says Dena Lesser of Tamarac, who scavenges at garage sales and then sells what she finds at the Swap Shop.

Lesser was selling two mannequins, for instance. She paid $3 for one of them and found the other in the trash. Her price to Swap Shop shoppers? $150 each.

"You just have to get lucky," she says. Lucky like the time she bought a piece of Wedgwood china for $3 and resold it for $150.

She'd arrived at the Swap Shop by 4 a.m. and hoped to leave by 11 a.m. You get there early, she explains, to ensure a better selling spot.

Around 4 a.m., says Ida Maylor, is when you find the dealers from Palm Beach checking out the merchandise with flashlights. Maylor and her husband Cloris Dalley own a shop in Dania Beach. They come to the Swap Shop when sales are slow in Dania. Among the items they'd brought to sell was an East Lake end table for $225.

"It's slow until November all around," says Maylor. "So you try to sell what you can because you still have to pay the bills."

Just when you thought you were done with the Swap Shop, you remember there's a circus inside. The Haniford Family Circus has been performing seven days a week since 1989. The show starts with a synchronized water fountain, swaying and spraying in time with Mission: Impossible and Rhapsody in Blue.

There are clowns and elephants and trampoline acts. Three women hang from ropes and spin along to Send in the Clowns.

This is the Swap Shop.

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