Down East 2013 ©
Every successful company has its own creation story. Here’s one you might have heard: In 1911 an enterprising Freeport haberdasher returned from a hunting trip with wet feet. He enlisted a local cobbler to stitch leather uppers to workmen’s rubber boots. The next year, he advertised his creation in a mail-order catalog and received an order for one hundred boots. Ninety of these came back with complaints that the rubber had peeled loose from the leather. Instead of pocketing his profits, the upstart boot maker offered full refunds, even though it nearly put him out of business. He set about refining his design until his customers were completely satisfied. So begins the legend of L.L. Bean.
Most of us know the rest of the tale. On the popularity of its Maine Hunting Shoe and satisfaction guarantee, the small Freeport store grew until it had transformed the town. Its catalogs went out around the world, revolutionizing first the mail-order business and then the online shopping experiences of generations of consumers. Today L.L. Bean is a global organization with annual sales of $1.44 billion. It is not only Maine’s largest private employer; it is arguably the state’s defining brand. This year, the company that Leon Leonwood Bean founded celebrates its hundredth anniversary, and I for one will be celebrating along with it.
I’ve been privileged to be among the party planners. For the past year Down East has worked with L.L.’s great-grandson, Bill Gorman, to revise, redesign, and republish Bean’s original guidebook to the outdoors. First published in 1942, Hunting, Fishing and Camping seems both nostalgic and prescient. Its folksy advice about pitching a canvas tent will take you back to your own childhood camping trips, while its message about protecting the environment will strike a chord in anyone who worries about the state of the planet. Working to update this Maine classic has been one of the highlights of my editorial career.
Some of the pride I feel comes not only from my personal affection for the brand (most days, I dress like a middle-aged model for its Signature line), but also from simply being a Mainer. We hear a lot about our state’s economic disadvantages. We should do more to recognize — and take inspiration from — its successes. L.L. Bean blazed a path for all of us to follow