L.L. Bean’s ‘Guaranteed to Last’ shines light on iconic outfitter

Posted Feb. 17, 2012, at 6:16 p.m.
&quotGuaranteed to Last, L.L. Bean's Century of Outfitting America," celebrates the company's 100th anniversary.
Courtesy of L.L. Bean
"Guaranteed to Last, L.L. Bean's Century of Outfitting America," celebrates the company's 100th anniversary.
L.L. Bean shows off a nice tuna he caught in Palm Beach Shores, Fla., in the late 1950s.
Courtesy of L.L. Bean
L.L. Bean shows off a nice tuna he caught in Palm Beach Shores, Fla., in the late 1950s.
Baseball star Ted Williams was among those who recognized a good thing when he saw it. In 1960, he wrote a letter offering to merge with L.L. Bean or purchase the company outright.
Courtesy of L.L. Bean
Baseball star Ted Williams was among those who recognized a good thing when he saw it. In 1960, he wrote a letter offering to merge with L.L. Bean or purchase the company outright.
A letter sent from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to L.L. Bean in 1933.
Courtesy of L.L. Bean
A letter sent from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to L.L. Bean in 1933.
L.L. Bean (left) with his brother, Guy Bean, and Levin Patterson, after a hunting trip to the Dew Drop Inn in 1944.
Courtesy of L.L. Bean
L.L. Bean (left) with his brother, Guy Bean, and Levin Patterson, after a hunting trip to the Dew Drop Inn in 1944.

GUARANTEED TO LAST, L.L. BEAN’S CENTURY OF OUTFITTING AMERICA by Jim Gorman, Melcher Media, New York City, 2012, 224 pages, $29.95

Customers who have come to trust and rely on L.L. Bean’s products can be fiercely loyal. Some outfit their entire homes (and every member of their families) in Bean. Some make regular pilgrimages to the company’s Freeport store.

And some likely think they know nearly everything about the iconic outfitter and its storied history.

Of course, they don’t.

When a company has been around for 100 years, there is plenty of rich information to mine. There are plenty of tales to tell.

And thanks to author Jim Gorman, much of that information and many of those tales are shared in “Guaranteed to Last, L.L. Bean’s Century of Outfitting America.”

An ambitious project that was launched as part of the company’s 100th anniversary celebration, “Guaranteed to Last” tackles the L.L. Bean story and packages it in a way that Bean fans will be sure to love.

Start with the cover, which is crafted of a familiar canvas (it’s used to make the popular Bean Boat and Tote bag), and sports a familiar label (the same one you’ll find in the collar of your favorite flannel shirt).

Then start flipping pages, and watch as the Bean success story comes to life through a handsome combination of vintage artwork, product profiles and timelines that link important L.L. Bean advances with key historical dates.

The result is a history book that comes alive, allowing readers to relive crucial decisions, iconic products and marketing forays that helped the company thrive.

Add Gorman’s straightforward, well-researched prose, and the package is one that true Bean fans will surely enjoy.

If you’re a real Bean fan (A Beaniac, if you prefer), you may recognize the author’s name. Or, you may think you do. Here’s a quick family history lesson to help explain any misunderstandings: Leon Gorman was L.L. Bean’s grandson and was the company’s longtime CEO. Jim W. Gorman Sr. is a Bean family member and is Leon’s brother. Jim W. Gorman Jr. is a family member, an L.L. Bean employee and on the board of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine.

Jim P. Gorman, however, is none of those things. He’s not related to the company’s founder. He doesn’t work there. He’s an award-winning writer.

And he’s very, very good.

Jim Gorman (the author) said he wrote the book on a tight deadline, and completed it in three and a half months.

“My biggest challenge, besides lack of sleep, came in reconstructing L.L. Bean’s business career, especially the early years,” Gorman said in an email response to interview questions. “Most of his contemporaries are deceased and, while L.L. was certainly a man of action who relied quite a bit on gut instinct in decision-making, he wasn’t one for recording his thoughts or motivations in writing.”

As a result, Gorman said he often knew exactly what L.L. had done, and when he had done it, but was left wondering “why?”

Jenna Klein Jonsson, L.L. Bean’s creative director and managing editor, said book discussions began about a year ago, and Gorman wrote much of the book in advance of design work. She said a book about the company that would be released in conjunction with the 100th anniversary celebration seemed a perfect fit.

“A lot has been published about the company over the years, but we wanted to create a book that explored the company’s place in American culture,” she said in an email. “Our founder, L.L., was a fabulous storyteller. We think this book celebrates his spirit.”

Gorman said the relationship between the company and its customers is impressive, and helped guide him as he wrote.

“‘Customers’ doesn’t even do the relationship justice; they’re more like ‘fans.’ Every purchase is like a vote of confidence in a family-run company that doesn’t cut corners and does things the right way,” Gorman said. “In the book, I chose to tell the story of the company through its iconic products, the long-lived and seemingly unchanged best-sellers like the Maine Hunting Shoe, Chamois Shirt, Boat and Tote, and Norwegian Sweater.”

Gorman said that the company’s attention to detail and constant tinkering with even its most popular products illustrates how L.L. Bean has thrived when other retailers have struggled or failed.

“[New iconic products] might look the same but they perform better and last longer [than they originally did],” Gorman said. “And that’s a metaphor for the company itself: its products may harken to a bygone time and the company’s public perception might be that of the folksy retailer up in Maine, but behind it is a thoroughly international, billion-dollar company equipped to compete in a crowded marketplace for another 100 years.”

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