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Salesmen: Merchant of the Maine Woods

4 minute read

An outdoorsman’s hunting ground it may be, but L. L. Bean, Inc. is also an efficiency expert’s nightmare. It stashes incoming mail in shirt boxes. Once it lost $125,000 in business when a list of 40,000 would-be customers was mistakenly destroyed. Under a garish, multicolored letterhead, its owner once answered a formal appointment request by advising “I am personally away more or less.” When he died of a heart ailment during a Florida vacation last week at 94, L. L. (for Leon Leonwood) Bean left a $4,000,000-a-year backwoods bonanza that could have been far bigger had he ever branched beyond tiny (pop. 4,000) Freeport, Me. But Bean liked his sportsman’s supply business the way it was. “I get three good meals a day,” he once said, “and I can’t eat four.”

Bean believed, and was obviously content in proving, that “it takes a sportsman to design equipment for sportsmen.” For more than 50 years, the flinty, down-East salesman peddled wilderness wares of his own making to grizzled backwoodsmen as well as fugitives from Abercrombie & Fitch. Among those who bought his snowshoes, fishing tackle and what have you were Bernard Baruch, Eleanor Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Doris Day and Amy Vanderbilt. To meet the demand, Bean employed 120 workers, also maintained a 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year (“When hunters need something, they want it right away”) retail outlet. But 80% of his sales were mail orders, generated by a quaint, cluttered catalogue that utterly delighted its 400,000 readers.

Loud Whistle. The semiannual catalogue, as fascinating for prose as for merchandise touted, contained more than 400 items ranging from Bean’s Improved Sandwich Spreader to a collapsible bait bucket. Many of the goods Bean designed himself; most he personally tested on the trails. In a spare, hardsell style that would be instructive to many an advertising copywriter, the catalogue once plugged a Combination Compass, Match Case and Whistle by noting that “the Whistle is loud enough to be heard a long distance.” Bean’s Deer Toter, a stretcher ingeniously rigged to a bicycle wheel, was described as a contrivance on which “your deer looks so much better than when dragged over the ground.” The catalogue also promoted Bean’s two highly successful books. One of them, Hunting, Fishing and Camping, a slender, lore-packed manual, sold 150,000 copies, contains duplicate chapters so woodsbound readers can clip parts out, still leave the tome intact. The other, a rambling, disjointed autobiography, is entitled simply My Story.

The story really began when L. L. Bean was 39. The orphaned son of a Maine horse trader, he had until then bounced from job to job. But he was an avid woodsman, and in 1912, while trudging on wet, blistered feet through the forest, he suddenly hit upon the idea of a boot with a rubber bottom attached to a leather top. From that inspiration came the famous “Maine Hunting Shoe”—which a hunter, Bean later boasted, “might like better than his wife.” Once in business, Bean gradually expanded into other lines, and his factory grew into a labyrinth of makeshift additions and rickety dumbwaiters.

Haphazard as it was, Bean’s business had as invaluable assets his own Yankee frugality and early-American honesty. When somebody suggested that he carry $70 eiderdown parkas, Bean snapped that hunters would only be wasting their money on a coat that expensive. Instead of pushing new sales, he urged customers to return worn-out Maine Hunting Shoes for refurbishing. Throwing away used boots, he advised, “is about the same as throwing away a five-dollar bill.”

Expansive Suspenders. Bean’s two sons and two grandsons, who plan to carry on the business with little change, helped him over the years. But Bean remained active until his death, afflicted by little more than a slight deafness that often made him amplify his voice even beyond its usual foghorn level. Asked not long ago if he had plans for expansion, Bean bellowed: “Yes, we have some suspenders in the catalogue.” The catalogue was his pride and joy, and Bean recently read galley proofs of the 100-page spring 1967 edition, which came out last week—the day after its originator’s simple funeral in his beloved snow-covered Maine woods.

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