The woman working at the Hudson News store at the Pittsburgh International Airport did not know John Cole.
But she knew why he had come to town.
On Tuesday, Mr. Cole, a 44-year-old who works in human resources in Orlando, Fla., walked into the airport store to buy an Anthrocon shirt that was on sale, a purchase that he said thrilled the woman working there.
Furry convention considers Pittsburgh home
Dr. Samuel Conway talks about the Furry convention and why Antrhrocon has made Pittsburgh its home. (Video by Nate Guidry; 7/3/2013)
"Her exact words were, 'I love it when the furries come to town,' " Mr. Cole said Wednesday, recounting the story as he sat in the Westin Convention Center Hotel, next to a person dressed in a full Arctic fox suit.
One woman's words may well have been a citywide chorus: This city seems to love it when the furries come to town.
It's hard to put a finger -- or a paw -- on why, but there's just something about the furries. The annual Anthrocon convention, now in its eighth year at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, is first and foremost a gathering of thousands of people who are fascinated by anthropomorphism, or putting human characteristics on non-human objects; many of them wearing full fur suits or ears and tails. The gathering also has become somewhat of a Downtown attraction.
"It's gone from a curiosity to being embraced in the city," said Craig Davis, president and CEO of VisitPittsburgh. "A lot of people tell me that it's their favorite time of the year to come down and people-watch."
So while Anthrocon's approximately 5,500 participants this year are expected to generate $6.2 million in direct spending, the actual economic impact is likely much higher.
"It's become an economic driver," said Mr. Davis, who was not wearing a fur suit, making him one of the few people standing in the third-floor lobby of the Westin Convention Center Hotel Wednesday morning who wasn't.
The four-day convention doesn't officially begin until today, but by Wednesday, the fur had already arrived.
The furry fans included Cyndie Boster, a 33-year-old leather crafter originally from California now living in France, who wore ears and a tail to become the fox character she named Zura. And Chaz Beckett, a 20-year-old biology student from Phoenix, wearing a fur suit of a lion-tiger-wolf-fox hybrid to become the furry character he calls Wuffy.
"You come for the animals and you stay for the humans," said an electrical engineer from Stockholm, who wore a partial fur suit and called himself Jake Greystripe.
Inside the Westin, the humans dressed as animals were attracting some long glances from the humans dressed as humans.
Jeff Smith, manager of the Westin's gift shop, said he sold out his stock of 30 Anthrocon T-shirts in less than 24 hours and had placed an order for more. Some were purchased by furries, but they also were selling well to non-furries.
"Some businessmen buy them for people back at home who don't believe it," he said.
Most city residents -- or at least people who work or visit Downtown -- believe it by now. Begun as a small party in Albany, N.Y., in 1997, Anthrocon has been in Pittsburgh since 2006.
"We're here to stay," said Samuel Conway, the CEO and chairman of Anthrocon. This year, Anthrocon will try to set a Guinness World Record for the world's largest fur suit parade, anticipating more than 1,000 participants inside the convention center.
If there's anyone who believes in the furries, it's Fernando DeCarvalho. Last year, Fernando's Cafe, the Liberty Avenue restaurant that became a destination for the furries, was struggling and due to shut down before the start of Anthrocon. The furries found out, however, and raised enough donations to keep the business open during the convention.
A short time later, Olie Budak, owner of Pizza Parma, purchased his friend's restaurant, and Mr. DeCarvalho departed to achieve his dream of becoming a pastor.
But for Anthrocon, he has returned to the temporarily named Furryland Cafe as its temporary manager, selling special Anthrocon T-shirts and dog bowls for eating.
"They won't let me not come back," he said.
Mr. Budak, like his predecessor, loves the furries, and not just because they are good business.
He likened the Pittsburgh furry attraction to the way the person dressed as a dancing cow outside a Chick-fil-A restaurant catches the eye: When you see someone in a costume, you want to take a picture with them.
"Especially," Mr. DeCarvalho added, "if there are 800 of them."