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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?

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The rain is cold–a typical Maine summer storm. A front from the north has spun down the Atlantic coast. I’m shivering in my tent. This is not what I expected. Conditions have kept me awake for nearly 24 hours, and I’m struggling. I don’t have a sleeping bag, though there are dozens just a few feet away. I am underdressed, though there are mountains of fleece pullovers and wool socks just beyond my rainfly–which is now whipping back and forth like a banner.

I close my eyes. A little shuteye–just a bit–is all I want.

No. Must. Stay. Awake.

My only option is to leave the tent. I emerge into the squall and begin to walk. I can see a light–10 feet ahead, electric. Beyond it lies heat and food and comfortable chairs, books and beds and barbecues. It’s all the gear I’d ever need.
I step into the shelter of L.L.Bean’s flagship store and breathe a sigh of relief.

Twelve hours to go.

SINCE 1912, when Leon Leonwood Bean began selling his famous rubber-bottomed hunting boots, the L.L.Bean store in Freeport, Maine, has offered anytime service. The system has evolved slightly: L.L. used to scurry downstairs when sportsmen, hoping for a predawn start, came knocking. Today, the store simply doesn’t close; there aren’t even locks on the six sets of double doors. Need a tent stake at two in the morning? An opposite-zipper fleece-lined cotton sleeping bag to cozy up with a trailhead hottie? No problem. Bean is awake.

For the next 24 hours, I would be, too. In recent years, I’ve spent the Fourth of July camping in the Rockies, descending into a remote Mexican canyon, cycling through Tuscany. This time, I chose a different kind of endurance event: For an entire rotation of the earth, I would not leave the Bean store. The only place I could go outside? The walkway leading from the main building to the hunting and fishing shop–about 40 feet. I couldn’t use my cell phone. I wasn’t allowed to bring food–no energy bars, no Domino’s. If I wanted to eat, I’d have to rely on my survival training, consuming only what I could find in the habitat surrounding me. No books from the outside. No iPods, no teddy bears, no Red Bulls, no support crew. Sleeping? Forbidden. It was a self-imposed challenge. I wanted to spend 24 hours in the store that supplies outdoor gear 24/7 to answer a few simple questions: Is this necessary? What does it say about our wants, our needs? And do Polartec Windbloc jackets really belong next to wicker rocking chairs?
And at 2:00 p.m., July 3, my girlfriend and I stand in front of the store that is Double L’s sprawling legacy: 160,000 square feet of gear, clothing, housewares, and New England quaintness–the same stuff you (and everyone you know) peruse in the 250-million-plus catalogs Bean mails each year. She kisses me goodbye. I watch her disappear. I’m already thinking that the pizza rule is stupid.

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.

“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).

Earlier during my visit, I’d picked up a brochure about the hunting outlet’s newest addition: a virtual bow-hunting room. I hope that slaying electronic turkeys will restore my alertness, but this Down East Tomb Raider variation only keeps daytime hours. I try a few duck calls–no luck–and wander outside. It’s raining hard.

I walk past the row of demo tents. I peek in. Just for a second. No sleeping bags or Therm-a-Rests. The ground beneath the tent floor is cold and bumpy. With so much discomfort below me, it’s safe to recline–for just a minute. There’s no way could I fall asleep. It’s 4:30 in the morning.

Suddenly, I open my eyes. It is now 4:40. I realize I’ve hit the crux of my Bean expedition, when I must abandon the familiar confines of a tent in order to complete my mission.

I step into the cold rain and move slowly back to the main store. The frigid downpour brings me fully awake. I see just one customer: a college student who is returning five jackets. He tells me that he received them as graduation gifts–and hates them. “I had to do this early,” he says, “so the gifters wouldn’t catch me.” What is he going to exchange them for? “Socks,” he says. “Or maybe PowerBars.”

At 5:30 a.m., July 4, the big transaction of the night goes down: A mystery paddler engages in two hours of discussion with philosopher Laverdiere, followed by a credit card swipe for a pair of kayaks. I have a headache. I walk over to the camping department and pick up a first-aid kit for $25.95. Two Tylenols later, I feel better. I’m also prepared for a snakebite. I wander past the front desk, where a clerk is unplugging the coffee. He stares at the doors; there’s an orange glow out there. “Today,” he says, “is going to be crazy.”

At 8 a.m., I position myself by the main door. At a safe distance. A person standing in the doorway could easily get overrun by the incoming stampede. Families and couples. Solo shoppers and groups. The parking lot has turned into a bus terminal. Load upon load of slow-moving seniors tumble by and scatter in different directions.

One group, however, doesn’t move into the store. Instead, a dozen of them quickly sit on benches near the entrance. These are the only surly people I’ll encounter during my entire stay. They’re on a pre-packaged bus tour with the rest of Maine and Nova Scotia to go. They have no time for Bean. They are angry, angry at everything, even angry at the little yellow nametags they wear, which say “HARRY’S MOTOR COACH TOURS.” They’re certainly angry at my questions.

“We get the catalog,” one of them snaps when I ask her why she isn’t shopping.

I consider giving them the Code 4 tip. But they’re not worthy. And I will cede no sympathy when I’m this close to the finish.
Another hour passes. I watch a white-bearded gentleman purchase a few red chamois shirts and witness a longtime customer successfully return a 15-year-old container of mink oil. I fake an interview with the shoe department manager, who notices I’m not even taking notes. “Sorry,” I say.

“No problem,” he smiles. “We know you’re doing something crazy.”

No, I’m not. Crazy is searching for secret codes on incense. Crazy is selling the wee-wee of an ungulate. Crazy is a store where you can buy two kayaks before sunrise.

I’m not crazy. Crazy is all around me.

HERE ARE SOME THINGS that make my Christmas list: canoe, chocolate lobster. Here are some things that don’t: chamois shirts, big-butt stretch jeans. I already have a bright orange down vest, reversible to silver. Wouldn’t mind a nice parka. Then again…maybe not. Never mind that Bean gear is good enough to go up Everest (it has). When I’m deep in the Utah backcountry, I don’t want a parka for which monogramming is an option.

The crowds are swelling. I notice a couple that looks out of place. They are both beautiful: fashionably dressed, all in black. I introduce myself, and think: Don’t you know Prada is, like, six million blocks from here? Turns out they are from Mexico City, and have heard of this magical place, and–as if Old Man Bean were the Virgin of Guadalupe–have made a pilgrimage. They introduce themselves in English, elegant, filled with flourish: “I am Benito Leal Cueva,” he says, “and this is Maria Elena de la Puente.” So lovely that I wonder if they’ll find anything to buy. There’s little in the way of D&G eyewear or Hermès scarves amidst the chowder and shotgun shells. Not to worry: There’s a hand-crank radio in their basket. Preparedness is universal.
Now it’s time I join the hordes. I need gifts, too. Lip balm. Flip-flops. I look for one of my favorite Bean items–quick-dry travel boxers–but the store no longer carries undies.

My girlfriend will arrive at 1 p.m. She has agreed to accompany me through the final hour, but without the tuna melt–or wheelchair–I’m craving. I stand by the door and wait for a solid hour and twenty minutes. I’m as unmoving as the dead moose above me.

At 12:50, she enters. At 10 past one, I start rationalizing. “If we add the time we spent finding a parking space, I’ve already done 24 hours! It won’t be cheating to leave now!”

“If you don’t stay, you’ll regret it. How about a tour of the store?” she asks, sweetly taking my hand.

It is hard, sometimes, to make sense of everything Bean sells–and why it seems to sell everything. But after a full day, I think I understand: What Bean represents is the future that people like you and me–people who live and love the outdoors–really dream about. A place where our pursuits become effortless, seamlessly integrated into mainstream consumer culture. A place where Gore-Tex and high-thread-count sheets, crampons and moccasins, polo shirts and mountain bikes, all merge. Where a family day at the shore really does complement high-altitude mountaineering.

I’m glad Bean is always stocked and always open. But I can’t wait to leave. At 2:01 p.m., July 4, I step into the daylight. I am free.

And from this day forward–Code 4s be damned–I’m strictly catalog-only.

Dan Koeppel is the author, most recently, of Banana: The Fate of the Fruit that Changed the World.

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