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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?

“This is a Code 4,” Barbara explains.

I’m apparently in the company of the elite athletes of this event. I don’t even speak their language.

Barbara shows me the label. “It begins with the number four. That means it’s a store-only item. Numbers below four mean that it’s also in the catalog.”

The incense cones are the Bean equivalents of panned gold. “The most exciting moment,” Barbara continues, “is when we find a new Code 4.”

I am totally out of my league.

BY THREE A.M., the night shift is in full swing. I’m hanging with long-time staffer Jeff Laverdiere. He’s been doing this for nearly two decades. He likes the late shift because he can give customers real advice. “I once helped somebody plan an entire trip along the Appalachian Trail,” he tells me. “It took four hours.” Night is good for people who like to talk, and be talked to. “Everyone’s a philosopher at 3 a.m.,” he says.

Before dawn, the store becomes quiet, though it isn’t the moonlit peace of a remote campsite: The fluorescent lights glow yellow on the half-dozen or so employees and customers who meander through the abandoned aisles. The action centers around the free coffee that management makes available until 6 a.m. I guzzle a cup each time I make a circuit of the store. I’ve probably walked the equivalent of seven or eight miles so far. I should have bought a pedometer (five models available, including one with an FM radio).

Post-midnight, the store is popular with tipsy college students (talk about a wild night!). RVers too tired to find a legit hookup shop for something to justify a stay in the parking lot. And celebrities: John Travolta and Bruce Springsteen have made nocturnal visits for semi-private shopping. Nautical purchases seem to be a predawn favorite: I see a scraggly-looking dude–flannel shirt, three-day beard–rushing to the registers with a couple of lifejackets, as if the rescue is in progress. When I inquire, he gives me a withering look and simply utters: “It’s time.”

L.L.BEAN SELLS GUNS. Though the retailer began as a resource for hunters, the notion that a place as seemingly mild as this doubles as an armory surprises many a visitor. And Bean’s evolving image has meant a literal shift for firearms: The hunting compound, separated from the main store by a narrow path between a pair of parking lots, once held the kids’ stuff.

It’s a different world over here. No blankets or blueberries, just rows of gear: a $159 rosewood duck call; deer urine (so shooters will smell like their prey); deer-urine-neutralizing laundry soap; face masks that look like leafy beards; and weapons. Lots of weapons, including L.L.Bean-brand rifles, and what is the single most expensive item in the store: a Merkel 147EL shotgun, priced at $4,995 (second most costly: a $3,795 replica 1906 B.N. Morris canoe, built by canoe guru Rollin Thurlow).

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