Visit to LL Bean Spurs Fond Memories
When you’re from Maine, your childhood heroes and icons are generally few and far between. We’ve had but a few nationally notable athletes, a boxer named Joey, a driver named Ricky and a runner named Joan, among others, who we collectively keep on a first-name basis. There’s a statue in Bangor, not far from a certain author’s home, that we feel genetically compelled to drive our children past at least once in their early lives.
Generally, though, my home state has stood more for its environment and values than any other notoriety. Maine has suffered through the ugly underbelly of development just like most other states in our union, but much about the state remains unchanged, too. Today’s children can wander through Acadia National Park, just the same way the children did 100 years ago. Thanks to a remarkable former governor, the massive Baxter State Park also stands as a living outdoor history museum where the monuments are the tall trees and clean water that used to span the continent.
Last Friday I was visiting the place I will always call home, stopping first for a breakfast with Mom, before trekking a bit farther north to LL Bean. Around the world the company is known as a billion-dollar retail giant, but for those of us old enough to have actually visited the original yellow store on Main street, the place is like a little neighborhood kid we once knew who grew up well.
Back when fishing was my family’s primary avocation, clomps up the store’s bowed stairway were an annual pilgrimage. Before “merchandising” even joined the retail lexicon, the store’s hooks and lures were quite literally tossed into random boxes by the back wall. Think unkempt dollar store at a quarter to closing time on Christmas Eve and you’d have the right picture in mind.
These past few days the company threw itself a 100th birthday bash, inviting superstar musicians to town and sending fireworks high into the Freeport sky. I was among a handful of Maine authors invited to mark the occasion; they set me up in a comfortable I-wanted-everything new home store right in the center of what is now a rambling LL Bean campus.
It was my first visit to LL Bean since I left Maine in 2011 and, for whatever melancholic reasons only my subconscious psyche could explain, all sorts of memories came flooding back . . . My feet freezing cold in the winter time in my first pair of Bean boots, realizing that I would have been better off choosing the pair with the felt liners. My first red-and-white pinstriped LL Bean shirt that I wore most every day during my sophomore year in high school; man, I (thought I) was cool.
As LL Bean grew up, the town grew up around it. More stores came and more shopping opportunities meant more tourists. Some purists complained that the town’s character had changed; I lived in Freeport for a few years back in the ’80s and ’90s and quickly learned that, in Freeport, two camps exist between LL Bean supporters and detractors.
Today, however, from the perspective of someone from Maine who lives in Rhode Island, I see the company as doing far, far more right than wrong — not because it makes a bunch of money for the heirs of Leon Leonwood Bean, but primarily because it celebrates my home’s most significant virtues of environment and values.
The company represents a bygone era when everyone hunted and fished in fresh air and clean water. Without someone of substantial means and influence painting that authentic picture for today’s America, then would anyone care if the rivers and streams were polluted, or not? And although it’s true that you can no longer watch the moccasins being hand sewn on the rickety second floor, and stuff is more likely to be imported from China than made in Maine, LL Bean still guarantees the stuff with its no-questions-asked guarantee.
Finished with signing copies of my book, Tag, Toss & Run: 40 Classic Lawn Games last Friday, I wandered off to meet Seth, this generation’s Maine champion that the kids all keep on a first-name basis. LL Bean invited the Olympic snowboard two-time gold medalist to play outdoor games with the folks from Healthy Hometowns, the company’s charity arm that supports outdoor activities. When I got there Seth was doing more signing than playing, with a steady stream of wide-eyed admirers getting some earnest encouragement from their hero.
I never did pull rank, cut the line and shake Seth’s hand. It was best, I thought, to let the kids have every possible moment with the man who wore Maine on the bill of his cap. Maybe they, too, would be inspired to grow to be a champion, or at least to represent what is right about the world, or rail against what is wrong. Or maybe they would start a store one day, one that paints pictures of the way life ought to be and offers satisfaction guaranteed.
So much has changed in the past 100 years, so we ought to stop once in a while and recognize those who have at least tried to keep things the same.