VALLEY FORGE PA – Alex Cox has traveled from his Centerville MD home to all parts of the world for more than 18 years, selling high-end restaurant-quality cookware for household use. In a job that’s taken him “from Maine to Spain,” as he loves telling customers, Cox has witnessed plenty of unusual things. Rarely, though, he said, has he seen anything like Saturday (Feb. 21, 2009) at the Valley Forge Convention Center.

Cox, who is accustomed to selling $50,000 worth of pots and pans in a single month, claimed he had his best sales day ever Saturday, as the convention center filled to capacity with people attending the Greater Philadelphia Spring Home Show. Other vendors were similarly delighted with what seemed to be a record-breaking crowd, although neither the center or the show’s promoter, Syosset NY-based American Consumer Shows (ACS), have yet announced attendance figures.

The attraction, most vendors believe, was the magic of a word that warms the heart of bargain-hunters everywhere. “Free.”

ACS decided to throw the doors open to the public at no cost, forsaking $9-a-head admission fees in what it touted as a thank-you gesture for attendance at past shows and in recognition of the recession’s local impact. On television and radio, and in newspaper advertising, the word went out: there’s no charge to get in.

Its strategy worked, maybe far better than the promoter planned.

In Saturday’s chilling winds and Sunday’s cold drizzle, visitors waited outside in line for up to an hour just to get through the center’s doors. The place was so packed at times that security personnel were forced to limit the number of people entering until others left. Mark Dierolf of Sanatoga Water Conditioning, which was among the show’s exhibitors, said the aisles were occasionally so filled that foot traffic seemed gridlocked.

The show itself took up both floors of the center, and on each aisles were lined with booths offering every sort of home repair, improvement or enhancement product and service imaginable. About 150 vendors could be found on the first floor alone, and another 70 or so on the second floor.

Cox, who represents Health Craft Inc. of Tampa FL, had been demonstrating and selling his company’s products, cookware made of surgical steel that retails at $1,600 for a set of four pots and accompanying covers, since Friday. By Sunday afternoon he’d exhausted his supply of customer brochures. “It’s been a little busy,” Cox said with understatement. He was tired, but grinning.

“I just didn’t expect this number of people,” he added.