The Town that Bean Built

Freeport is a sleepy little town in southern Maine that has become the factory outlet center of New England. On a recent trip to Freeport, I had a chance to see firsthand this town that has made it name from shopping.

There are now about 170 factory outlets in Freeport with names like London Fog, Nautica, Timberland, Gap and Banana Republic that are open seven days a week. People travel from all over to reach this shopping mecca, hoping to bring home a bargain or two before they wrap up their summer vacation.

One morning around 8 o’clock, I was sitting in a small nook getting breakfast and watching the town wake up. People were rushing by on their way to some or another outlet. Some of the stores that don’t open until 10 a.m. were drawing curses from frustrated shoppers.

People who think individual initiative no longer carries any weight in today’s world would be proven wrong in Freeport, which owes its prosperity to an individual with the unlikely first-middle name combination of “Leon Leonwood” — and the unusual last name of “Bean.”

During his formative teenage years, L.L. Bean liked to hunt in the Maine woods but was frustrated by the way his leather boots kept getting waterlogged. So he devised a new kind of boot with a rubber bottom and a leather top. He called this the Maine Hunting Shoe and in 1912 started to advertise it through the mail. He soon had about 100 orders to fill.

Those first orders, however, were ill-fated, as 90 pairs were sent back to him promptly with the owners complaining that the stitching had fallen apart. L.L. created new, better boots to replace those and came up with the 100% satisfaction guaranteed policy that is still the hallmark of his stores.

As more and more people began to drop by personally to purchase products, Bean opened a showroom on Freeport’s main street and branched out into other products, all guaranteed 100% and all backed by the Bean quality and honesty.

By 1951, outdoorsmen were coming by the store in the middle of the night, on their way to the field, which prompted Bean to make his well-known announcement that he was Throwing away the keys — meaning the store would never close its doors again.

Today, L.L.’s small enterprise is the biggest tourist draw in New England and a national resource to boot. The Freeport store offers 16,000 products and attracts more than 3.5 million visitors a year. Mail order customers place orders from all over the world to the tune of about 180,000 a day.

But the famous “throwing away the keys” has been changed slightly. Bean’s now closes one day a year, on Christmas.

Bean himself lived to be 94 and liked to tell people his longevity was due to his spending a lot of time in the outdoors. Today, his grandson runs the company.

But what impresses me more than all those numbers is one story in particular about Bean’s. Local biologist Steve Reinert tells the story about a pair of boots he bought at the store. He loved the boots, but the size felt a little small. Finally, after seven years, Reinert decided he needed another pair.

He sent the original pair back to Bean’s, with a long letter explaining how the boots were great, but they had always felt small throughout the seven years he owned them. A short time later, a brand new pair arrived in the mail — compliments of the house.

Since first discovering Bean’s years ago, I’ve learned that you can always find similar products at cheaper prices and more convenient places. But I’ve also learned that Bean’s is the embodiment of the expression that, when you buy a product here, you buy the company, not just the product. And I admire the Bean stand on service and satisfaction. We’d do well as a society to build our own jobs, businesses and careers on those values.

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