Inside L.L. Bean’s Freeport flagship store, an around-the-clock look

Posted Dec. 18, 2014, at 2:07 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 18, 2014, at 2:37 p.m.

FREEPORT, Maine — Like New York City, L.L. Bean in Freeport never sleeps. But even Gotham doesn’t lay out the welcome mat like the Maine icon synonymous with boots, flannels and fly rods does 24 hours a day.

This has always intrigued me. What happens during the wee hours at the company’s flagship store? I had heard stories of late-night pilgrimages to buy chamois shirts and hunters rushing in searching for gear. In the name of sheer journalistic curiosity, I decided to roam the 220,000-square-foot campus of flannel, fleece and fun from noon to noon, armed with an iPhone, Instagram and Twitter at the peak of the holiday shopping season. Was I mad?

When the clock struck midnight last Friday, I stood surrounded by red bows, green trees and candy canes. Twas like the night before Christmas: Nothing was stirring, and rag sweaters and plaids were placed by the checkout counter with care. A promise of holiday shoppers hung heavy in the air.

“We really want to get people to engage with nature, understand it — especially kids,” said Laurie Gilman, events coordinator for L.L. Bean, who like many employees I met on this assignment evinced a sense of pride when talking about the company with a 100 percent guarantee on all goods.

On any given day, the public can learn fly-fishing basics to snowshoe at night and tie survival knots in the woods at the store. Need to clean your gun? Free demos in the hunting and fishing store happen regularly.

Humble beginnings

“An institution is the lengthened shadow of one man,” Ralph Waldo Emerson once observed.

Leon Leonwood Bean, a Maine native from Greenwood orphaned at age 12, casts a long one here.

Some people make movies while others write great novels or cure diseases; Bean affixed leather to rubber to keep his feet dry while hunting. His first product became a brand forever linked with the resilient, crafty elan of the Pine Tree State.

Fast forward a century, and the Bean boot is a symbol of dependability, from the streets of Brooklyn to the Allagash. Before winter has even officially began, the trademark is on backorder. Most sizes won’t be available till February or even March. It’s in such high demand that a black market has emerged for the coveted kick.

“It’s a nice problem to have,” said Mac McKeever, the company’s senior public relations rep touring me around the main, mega retail store.

Why are celebrities and professional ball players turning to this practical, preppy boot made for hunting a lifetime ago?

That’s not the only Bean product in high demand this year, though. Equally as flash-free, shearling slippers, chamois shirts, snowshoes and anything with balsam are flying off the shelves.

‘Comfort food’ of retail

“We are comfort food for the market,” Rod Kessler, assistant manager for L.L. Bean’s Outdoor Discovery Schools, said.

Moreover, this seems to be a place people genuinely like to work. I joined the staff for their holiday party in the breakroom. Turkey and gravy and a revolving array of potluck dishes, such as lentils and cornbread stuffing, were replenished by crews carrying in bowls and tins during all three shifts.

Standing behind a vat of white and dark meat, employees served employees with warm smiles. I tucked into my Thanksgiving redux with the crew from the Outdoor Discovery Schools, who table hopped to visit with colleagues they hadn’t seen in a while. In the kitchen a group of volunteers called the Bean Boosters were busily dishing out more festive fare.

The walls tell the story of company culture. One held plaques engraved with the names of those with long L.L. Bean tenures. Framed photos of employees skiing, running, hiking and communing with nature — a heritage everyone here respects — plastered another area.

Midnight madness

Because those doors swing both ways and have only been locked a handful of times since 1951, the 220,000-square foot campus instills theme park glee. With a camping atrium (where I caught some shut eye), a nightly holiday light show, free coffee from 1 to 5 a.m. and endless aisles of flannel, it’s an inviting place to spend some time.

“Like Disney World, this is a destination,” Gilman said. “People walk through the doors and say, ‘We made it.’”

Jeff and Lisa Whisnant from South Carolina made L.L. Bean their first stop in Maine during a trip to visit their daughter. It was 11 p.m. Thursday when they browsed the store, dazed and happy. They looked at tents, equipment and Christmas ornaments. Lisa cooled her heels on a bench by a moccasin display. Despite their fatigue, they had the zeal of travelers in a new land.

“Dear friends of ours in South Carolina are from Maine. They say, ‘Oh, you’ve got to do this. You’ve got to come at midnight,’” Jeff Whisnant said with a drawl.

And they did.

“There is winter gear here that we have never seen before.”

Friends Zoe Bradford of Hingham, Massachusetts, and Cathy Torrey of Weymouth pilgrimage here every year to holiday shop.

“This is a getaway for us. I don’t like malls. I’m an outdoor person,” said Bradford, who hikes at Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park when weather permits. “It brings out the simple way of living.”

The store draws people of all ages and stations. At 2 a.m., college students, after dining in Portland, poked about in search of gloves.

A man from Brunswick, who wished to remain anonymous, found the wee hours the perfect time to buy a briefcase and hide the evidence.

“I try to do this outside of my wife’s purview so she doesn’t know how much I’m spending,” he said. “I’m a night owl. I’m a natural European.”

Behind the scenes

In the backroom, where 13,000 products come through the doors daily this time of year, a bearded operations department employee named Nick Bearce was clad in vintage Kris Kringle garb. He broke down cardboard boxes and moved pallet crates with a “ho, ho ho.”

“He does that on his own,” Gilman said, looking on.

I got a first-hand look at the DNA of this billion-dollar company with stores across the country and a worldwide catalog. Betwixt the sea of flannels and cashmere backstage are clues to the good vibes one feels shopping here.

“Serving customers is a day in, day out, ongoing, never ending, unremitting, persevering, compassionate kind of activity,” exclaims Leon Gorman, the founder’s grandson, in quotes stamped where employees roam.

Another from L.L. himself reads, “Rule # 1 The customer is always right. Rule 2, if the customers is ever wrong re-read Rule 1.” Employees like Gilman point them out as signposts of pride.

The only time a customer may be wrong, I found out, is when they fall asleep on a dog bed. That’s prohibited.

A passion for the outdoors

In the hunting and fishing department, you can apply for a fishing license and buy a shotgun on the spot. There are more than 900 types of firearms that have been sold here, and the salespeople, not just biding time between gigs, know their stuff.

“We work hard to hire folks who are outdoor enthusiasts,” McKeever said.

In other words, they hire people who can talk the talk and walk the walk. They are Maine guides, snowshoers, ski instructors and fishing experts. Not only do they sell the equipment; they also will tell you how and where to use it.

Among the employees are expert marksmen like Georgette Kanach, a Jackman native who learned to hunt at 8 years old and bought her first shotgun a few years later. She knows her rifles and will educate you while helping to guide your purchase. Never used an archery bow before? Sam Coffin, a patient man, will keep you on target.

Halfway through my 24-hour immersion in this Maine institution, I had barely scratched the surface of this multi-faceted shopping venue.

“Have you been to the fish bubble?” a colleague inquired on Twitter.

I walked over to the Riverbed Aquarium, squatted into the tank and watched trout and albino fish swim about. At this hour, you don’t need to elbow kids out of the way for an aquatic thrill.

As change accelerates rapidly in this country, the classics, such as an L.L. Bean button-down and an honest interchange, feel, instead of outdated, better and better.

In 1992, Maine governor John McKernan asked, “Is Bean Bean because of Maine or is Maine Maine because of L.L.Bean?”

The answer is both.