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 the vast parking lot. Among the largest in the world, it serves as a tourist destination for those visiting the Sunshine State. But locals know the Swap Shop, open Sunday–Saturday, is far zanier than tourists might think. (You probably won’t get that Instagram picture you were hoping for here). And that’s exactly what makes it an entertaining visit time and time again.
The Swap Shop not only includes decades of history, but it is also a work of art— there is truly nothing else like it around. 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, absorb it all in and appreciate what you find, like any other fine art piece.
- Signs for Every Type of Person
One of the largest shops located on the building’s second floor sells signs. It’s a noteworthy stop where you can read the signs and imagine the type of people who would buy them. Some are odd and 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?” There are 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 in 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. At his feet are skulls that complete the edgy, gothic look. It’s cool if you’re into that sort of thing. Its price: $79.99.
- Places for Spiritual Guidance
When it all seems hopeless and there is nowhere left to turn… turn on Sunrise Boulevard into the Swap Shop. Here, you’ll find your answers. Inside the building by the food court stands Zoltar, the fortune teller in a box, offering his wondrous services for a buck. “Could $1 change your life?” the mannequin asks, staring out from behind the glass with his gold chains and impressive mustache. Not sure? If you’d rather spend your money on guidance from an actual human being, the flea market has that too! Lakshimi Kanth claims to be a world-famous Indian astrologer and psychic reader who can “remove any kind of black magic, spells or negative energy.” She advertises services that include palm, face and fate readings. There’s a promised 100% guarantee that she will provide a solution to your problem. Her booth is located in the parking lot in the outdoor flea market and her number is 754-304-7614. She accepts both walk-ins and appointments.
- Neon Signs… Everywhere
Neon signs were invented by Georges Claude in 1910, but if you wander through the Swap Shop, you might think Preston Henn was the initiator. Henn founded the Swap Shop way back in 1963. He loved neon signs. In fact, you can spot them in just about every crevice and on every wall in the place. There are classic, nostalgic ones, like the blazing red “$wap” and the icy blue “Thunderbird,” both in trademark fonts. And there are 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-7 News.
- Weapons, Weapons, and More Weapons
Are you in desperate need of a katana? What about brass knuckles or throwing stars? If you, for some reason, answered yes to these questions, 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.” The owner of this particular shop 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 also 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, it’s irrefutable that during its heyday it was an even grander spectacle. The 88-acre entertainment complex started off humbly as Thunderbird Drive-In, a movie theater with one screen. The founder, Preston Henn, upgraded his passion project through the years, adding the beloved flea market, a food court, go-kart 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, which delighted visitors daily with elephants, tigers, acrobats and clowns. Country singer Willie Nelson, disco-funk group KC and the Sunshine Band and more performed centerstage for screaming fans. And Uncle Bernie’s Amusement Park boasted carnival rides and fun for the whole family. Today, the circus is long gone, concerts are no longer hosted here and the majority of the carnival rides no longer work. But by playing a game of I Spy, you can still catch glimpses of what this magnificent place was like during its best days. There are still vintage posters advertising the circus, old newspaper clippings framed proudly on the wall and an ad encouraging visitors to ride the Tri-Rail to the famed tourist attraction.
- 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, by the way, is rated 10% on Rotten Tomatoes, like most of Cage’s films). The most curious piece of all is the “mirror, mirror on the wall”— which is 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 that can be found throughout the colossal building. At every turn, there are oddities. It’s like stepping into an art museum that was solely created to disorient its visitors. It may be tempting but try not to ponder the unintelligible objects for too long. You may become hypnotized! In fact, there is no logic behind the random assortments of junk; It simply exists to exist. We can all learn a thing or two from this disorderly yet poetic place.