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24 Hours of L.L. Bean

It's the gear world's ultimate endurance event: a full day and night roaming the aisles at Bean's flagship store in Freeport, Maine. Will our man survive?

A SHOPPER SEARCHING FOR HARD-CORE OUTDOOR gear might be disappointed on a quick, initial circuit of the Bean flagship. The first thing you see upon entering is the kids’ department (favorite item: slippers designed to look like your feet are being mauled by huggable grizzlies). The main store then opens into clothing, luggage, and shoes. The outdoors section is tucked next to the men’s area (flannel-lined jeans, chamois button-downs). The second floor is nearly entirely devoted to serving those who want to live in Bean’s version of utopia: Adirondack-hunting-camp-gone-high-dollar-folksy. That means denim dog beds, lighthouse-shaped birdhouses, and personalized life preservers.

I soon notice that one item is seeded throughout the store: hand-crank radios. They’re arranged in pyramids, along shelves–everywhere. The bright plastic units come in LifeSavers colors, and the pricier models ($49.95) charge your cell phone, tune in to weather stations, and emit a piercing emergency siren. Store manager Brad Mason says they’re one of the store’s most popular items. I verify this by loitering near the checkout counter for an hour. I see one family buying five. Are there that many emergencies brewing? The attractiveness of the radio, I think, has less to do with the features than what the features imply: being stranded, alone, desperate–but resourceful. I realize that those are my goals for the next day. Though I don’t need 24 hours to decide that true adventure doesn’t come in a raspberry-purple box.

THERE IS ONE PLACE TO GET a snack AT the store–the Dew Drop Inn–which serves Bean’s famous clam chowder. But the soup is all gone, because a family of nine from Georgia has just scarfed up the last bubbling vat. They’re slurping while tallying their purchases, which include five book bags–the store’s largest-selling category (23 models). The Chowders are four generations strong, including grandparents who cheerily tout Bean’s one-two punch of free shipping and monogramming. The youngsters are really excited about the soup. “I had so much,” says the smallest, nearly screaming, “that I threw up!”

I leave them and find myself staring at a wall of polo shirts. It feels as if I’ve encountered an artifact of an ancient era (in this case, the 1980s). This was when Bean unexpectedly intersected with actual trendiness–thanks to The Preppy Handbook, which sold 1.3 million copies. The book dubbed Bean the official outfitter of the movement, and the L.L. Polo as its uniform. The trick was to wear a pair, in bright colors–one pink, one green–with both collars raised. (Should you wish to resurrect the look, the handbook suggested completing the ensemble by using a red bandanna as a belt.)

Afternoon-shift store manager Rick White comes by to check on me. He explains that the L.L. Polo is one of the company’s mainstays, an item that almost anyone can wear.

“And remember when people were wearing two at once?” I say. I’m about to comment on the absurdity of this when I notice a dreamy look in White’s eyes: He stares at the rack of clothes, then upward, his gaze fixed on a taxidermied moose head overlooking the men’s department (a beast bagged by L.L. himself). His voice takes on a wistful lilt. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah.”

AFTER RESISTING THE pull of a chocolate lobster and gulping a 10:58 p.m. dinner of mixed nuts ($5), I encounter the ultimate Beaniacs: Two sisters–Milissa Kidwell and Jennifer Thomas–along with their mother, Barbara Ulevich, are in their fourth night of shopping. The Florida trio is delirious. They come here every year. “No husbands, no kids,” says Jennifer.

They quickly offer an inventory of their purchases, which are sprawled around them: flannel pajamas; Henley shirts; and 30 (30!) tote bags, one for each person on their Christmas list (remember, it’s July). Birdhouse. Rocking chair. Total expenditures: about $1,800. Each.

A box of pine-cone incense sits on the table–a $5 item that you can find at nearly every national park gift shop in the Southwest. But the trio is torn.

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