Maine Man: The Story of L.L. Bean and His Company

L.L. Bean, the outdoor goods company known for cozy slippers, flannel wear, and nostalgia-inducing catalogs, has stayed surprisingly relevant across its 100 years in business. Its original Bean Boot has become a fashion statement of late, while its camping gear remains a go-to for millions of outdoor enthusiasts. Each year, more than three million people visit L.L. Bean’s flagship store in Freeport, Maine, helping fuel the company’s $1.6 billion in annual sales.

And it all started with a man who was tired of wet feet.

Leon Leonwood Bean—"L.L." to everyone who knew him—was an avid hunter and fisherman who never envisioned himself running a business, much less a multimillion dollar company. All he knew was that he had a persistent problem: Every time he went moose hunting in the boggy Maine wilderness, his feet got soaked. He tried out different pairs of boots, but the result was the same each time. So finally, he decided to do something about it.

The 40-year-old Bean, who left school after the eighth grade, was a career journeyman. He’d worked at a local creamery, sold soap door-to-door, and after his brother Otho opened a dry goods store, L.L. managed it. But Bean had never sewn a stitch in his life, and had zero experience making shoes. So he paid a local cobbler to make a special boot that attached a leather ankle support onto the hard rubber bottoms of galoshes. Bean called his creation the Maine Hunting Shoe.

The boot’s combination of a sturdy base with a lighter support structure was perfect for hunters who needed to walk long distances through adverse conditions. And it was a pretty novel concept for the early 1900s. After completing a successful hunting trip in them, Bean ordered 100 pairs of Maine Hunting Shoes.

To sell the shoes, he drafted an advertising flyer positioning himself as an expert outfitter:

Outside of your gun, nothing is so important to your outfit as your footwear. You cannot expect success hunting deer or moose if your feet are not properly dressed. The Maine Hunting Shoe is designed by a hunter who has tramped the Maine woods for the past 18 years. They are light as a pair of moccasins with the protection of heavy hunting boots.

Bean’s next step was a stroke of genius that, in hindsight, predicted his future success. Gathering all the names and addresses of Maine hunting license holders, he sent his flyer to those residing out of state. His thinking: These individuals were more likely to be novices in need of expert advice. In no time, he sold his first 100 pairs.

From a 1943 catalog, via eBay

Bean’s brilliant marketing would quickly sour, however, when the leather and rubber components of the boots began to come apart. One by one, customers sent their busted-up Maine Hunting Shoes back to him seeking a refund. The final tally was 90 out of the 100 pairs—a devastating failure rate for a new venture with limited resources.

Unbowed, Bean refunded everyone’s money, borrowed $400, traveled to Boston and met with representatives from the United States Rubber Company, who supplied him with new bottoms that would hold the stitching better. After returning to Maine, Bean manufactured the updated boots and sent pairs to the previously dissatisfied customers, free of charge. They were delighted.

This focus on service and quality, supported by a money-back guarantee, would become the backbone of L.L. Bean, the company. This sounds like PR boilerplate, but back in 1912 things like product safety and reliability were far from guaranteed—and it paid dividends for the tiny outfitter from Freeport. As word of mouth grew, L.L. Bean gained more customers, many of whom wrote to request the new and improved Maine Hunting Shoe. Bean sent out the orders, and made sure to slip in a brochure filled with folksy pitches he’d written for his growing lineup of products, which included zippered duffel bags, chamois shirts, moccasins, and fishing lures.

In addition to reliable products, L.L. Bean got a boost from the expanding U.S. Postal Service, which started its parcel service in the early 1900s. In 1917, Bean built a factory and shipment center over the town’s post office. With the help of another brother, Guy, who was the local postmaster, he built a system of chutes and elevators that quickly routed order slips and packages. As these deliveries sped across the northeast and throughout the country, the name L.L. Bean became synonymous with outdoor adventure.

From a 1930 catalog, via eBay

Bean also benefited from the growing number of automobile owners, many of whom began driving up to Maine for fishing trips and family outings. They’d make a special stop at the L.L. Bean showroom, positioned next door to the factory, where they’d often find the company’s affable founder eager to outfit them for their trip.

A few key endorsements fueled further growth for the company: The MacMillan Arctic Expedition of 1925 used its boots, and celebrities like Jack Dempsey and Babe Ruth were frequent customers. In time, names like Franklin Roosevelt, John Wayne, and Ernest Hemingway would sing the company’s praises. But it was L.L. Bean the man who figured most prominently into the company’s early success. According to numerous accounts, Bean was a born salesman who excelled at building relationships with his customers. He had his hands in every aspect of the business, too. He tested every product himself, often taking long lunch breaks to hike and fish using the latest gear. He also controlled everything from the company’s merchandising to ordering to the designing and writing of the company’s seasonal catalogs.

The L.L. Bean catalog, which began as a simple four-page flyer, quickly grew into a 51-page guide stuffed with clothing, shoes, sporting goods, and home furnishings. Not only did it showcase the products for sale, it conveyed the personality of the company, embodied by Bean himself. "It is no longer necessary for you to experiment with dozens of flies to determine the few that will catch fish," he wrote in a 1927 catalog. "We have done that experimenting for you." Friendly, helpful, and a little eccentric, the catalogs made people feel like they were buying from a lovable, excitable uncle rather than a company.

Fall 1943 catalog, via eBay

That lovable uncle, though, was also a savvy businessman who relished his role at the top. In his book L.L. Bean: The Making of An American Icon, Leon Gorman, L.L.’s grandson and former head of the company, recalled one executive flourish Bean put on display in the Freeport store:

"I was always struck that, near the cashier station in the retail store, L.L. had put up a big formal portrait of himself in a pin-striped suit. It was incongruous among all the snowshoes, fishing and hunting gear, and other outdoors paraphernalia—certainly not the image people had of this country uncle running a little catalog operation up in the woods of Maine."

Customer loyalty kept L.L. Bean thriving through the Depression. By 1937, the company had reached more than $1 million in annual sales. Its mail-order service expanded as the catalog grew in size. Now customers could buy everything from business shirts and barn jackets to pocket knives and swivel-head duck decoys. In 1942, L.L. traveled to Washington, where he advised military leaders on cold-weather outfits for troops. The company would end up supplying special boots known as "shoepacs" to the war effort. By the 1950s, L.L. Bean had become a household name.

For years, the company enjoyed sales growth of 25 percent and higher. By 1960, however, that growth had slowed considerably. The competition had caught up to L.L. Bean’s pricing and product quality. And the expansion of retail stores across the country offered a more hands-on buying experience for consumers. Bean, who by this time was approaching 90 years old and was still running the company, was behind the times when it came to manufacturing and marketing, too. His Freeport factory was a tangle of inefficiencies, and relied on an aging, part-time work force that wasn’t keeping up with order volume. In an era when print and television advertising was rapidly evolving, L.L. Bean could no longer rely on the hard work and folksy appeal of its founder to move product.

Bean would stay on as the company head until his death in 1967, at the age of 94. At that time, Gorman, a Bowdoin graduate and Naval Reservist who Bean hired in 1961 as treasurer, took over, becoming only the second person to lead a business that was more than 50 years old.

The company eventually caught up with the times. Gorman increased L.L. Bean’s advertising budget, made its pricing more competitive, streamlined its factory operations, and expanded retail locations throughout the northeast. But it also kept much of the original DNA that gave the L.L. Bean its identity, like the catalog and the Freeport outlet, which features a giant statue of Bean’s famous Maine Hunting Shoe (size 451).

For a company that prides itself on extreme customer service, they have one advantage many other companies can't claim: The Freeport outlet stays open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and never locks its doors. This practice hails back to 1951, when Bean, after years of agreeably waking up in the wee hours to outfit hunters and fishermen (the store’s doorbell had a sign over it that read, "Ring once a minute until clerk appears"), decided to keep the outlet open all hours.

Over the past 65 years, the Freeport store has remained constantly open, with one exception: February 5, 1967, the day of L.L. Bean’s funeral.

Two of the Last Blockbuster Stores Are Closing

The fact that Blockbuster still has three stores in the U.S. may come as a surprise, but the video rental chain's days are numbered. The brand's two branches in Alaska will be closing up shop next week, leaving only one last holdout in Bend, Oregon, according to Engadget.

"If you'd asked me 14 years ago, there's no way I'd thought we'd be the last one," Sandi Harding, General Manager of the Oregon store, tells Engadget. "It just seems a little crazy.”

Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy in 2010 but continued to license its logo to franchisees. In 2013, there were 13 remaining Blockbuster stores, and by 2016 there were nine. Many of these branches were located in Alaska, where internet is costly and many areas lack a broadband connection, making streaming difficult.

This alone wasn't enough to keep Blockbuster's Fairbanks and DeBarr Road locations in business, though. The stores will close July 16, but they'll reopen the following day for an inventory sale that will last until the end of August.

John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, became an unlikely champion of the DeBarr Road outlet last April when he bought the jockstrap worn by Russell Crowe in Cinderella Man for $7000 and donated it to the store in hopes of generating interest and foot traffic. It worked for a little while, but the effect was temporary and business dropped off once again. Indeed, the age of Netflix marks the end of an era.

[h/t Engadget]

Getty Images
11 Facts About 7-Eleven on 7/11
Getty Images
Getty Images

Happy 7-Eleven day! Don't forget to pick up a free Slurpee—and while you're enjoying the iconic slushie, read up on little-known tidbits about the popular company.


That was when Joe Thompson, an employee of the Southland Ice Company in Dallas, Texas, began selling eggs, milk, and bread from a makeshift storefront in one of the company’s icehouses. These bare necessities were kept cold thanks to the ice Southland produced, and local residents liked the convenience of avoiding the crowds and aisles of a regular grocery store if they only had to pick up a few items.

Thompson eventually bought out the ice company and started opening convenient little stores all over Texas. Shortly after, a company executive brought a souvenir totem pole back from a trip to Alaska, and set it in front of one of the busiest locations. Soon, the spot had earned the nickname the “Tote’m Store,” not only because of the totem pole, but because customers toted away their purchases. The company officially adopted the name and decorated their locations with an Inuit-inspired theme to match. The name changed to 7-Eleven in 1946 to reflect their new store hours—7:00am to 11:00pm—in order to capitalize on the post-World War II economic boom.


No one thought there would be demand for a store that was open 24/7—until one night in Austin in 1962. The local 7-Eleven had seen such a rush of students following a University of Texas football game that they were forced to stay open until dawn the next day. Sensing a trend, the store continued to stay open all night on the weekends, and soon more and more locations adopted the new schedule as well.


Getty Images

They beat out McDonald’s in 2007 and have since outgrown them by about 20,000 stores. Japan is the largest market with more than 20,000 stores under the name “Seven & I Holdings,” the parent company of 7-Eleven since 2005 [PDF]. America ranks among the top with 7896 locations, along with by Thailand and South Korea with more than 11000 and 7000 stores, respectively. And the company keeps growing, with a brand new store opening somewhere in the world every two hours of every day.


The ad touted their curbside grocery delivery service, and an animated rooster and owl reminded customers that the store was open early and closed late.


In the late-1950s, Omar Knedlik of Kansas City owned a rundown Dairy Queen. When his soda fountain went on the fritz, he improvised by putting some bottles in the freezer to stay cool. However, when he popped the top, they were a little frozen and slushy. Folks loved them and started requesting "those pops that were in a little bit longer." Realizing he had a surprise hit on his hands, Knedlik built a specialized machine using the air conditioning unit from a car, and cranked out slushy soda by freezing a mixture of flavored syrup, water, and carbon dioxide to make it fizz. He called it an ICEE, but when the drink concept was licensed to 7-Eleven in 1965, the company’s marketing department renamed it the Slurpee after the sound made while sipping it through a straw.


Getty Images

On this one day, 7-Eleven gives away about 500,000 gallons of Slurpees ... in North America anyway. In Australia, where the ice cold drink is also very popular, Slurpees are given away on November 7 (written Down Under as 7/11) to the tune of about 270,000 gallons.


There are a few, such as Diet Pepsi and the Jolly Rancher mixes, that are considered kosher dairy (due to the chemical tagatose in the artificial sweetener), while others, like the popular Piña Colada drink, are not certified at all. Some 7-Eleven stores get the machines themselves certified kosher as a selling point for their Jewish customers.


The province has an average of over 188,000 Slurpees sold in five regional stores every month. According to 7-Eleven, Calgary—and America’s #1 Slurpee market, Detroit—are closing in on the champs, though. Maybe next year, guys.

As for the biggest-selling single Slurpee location in the world, that title goes to the 7-Eleven in Kennewick, Washington, which locals have dubbed “The Slurpee Factory.” But 7-Eleven crowns more than just a Slurpee king. According to 7-Eleven, Maryland is the leader in hot dog sales, Long Islanders drink the most coffee, and Utah residents can’t go anywhere without a Big Gulp in their cupholders.


Customers vote by purchasing special red or blue coffee cups printed with each candidate's name. The cups are scanned at check-out and automatically entered in this unscientific, but surprisingly accurate poll—in 2000 and 2004, the number of coffee cup votes and the number of actual popular votes for both candidates was only off by 1 or 2 percentage points. While 2008's 7-Elections results were still correct, they gave the election to Obama by a landslide—60 percent to 40 percent—when the margin was really only about 7 percent. The trend continued in 2012, as caffeine addicts went blue to the tune of 59 percent for Obama to 41 percent for Romney, while the actual vote wound up being 51 percent to 47 percent.


That's the convenience store in Springfield owned by Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. At a cost of about $10 million, the 7-Eleven stores had their exterior signs replaced to reflect the fictitious store name and many of the products inside were modeled after those seen on the show. For example, customers could buy Krusty-O’s cereal, a limited edition Radioactive Man comic book, six packs of Buzz Cola, and even Squishees, the Simpsons version of the Slurpee. Sadly, Homer’s favorite swill, Duff Beer, was not available as the film being promoted was rated PG-13. Instead, they had a Duff Energy Drink with a label very similar to the animated brew. While not all locations were transformed into Kwik-E-Marts, special Simpsons merchandise was available at all 7-Eleven locations, including Homer’s own Woo-Hoo Blue Vanilla Slurpees with collectible straws.


In America, we see 7-Eleven as little more than a convenient place to grab a quick cup of coffee before work or a Big Gulp while we’re out running errands. But in other parts of the world, the shops are a lot more important to the local population. In Indonesia, for example, 7-Elevens are more like a hip, upscale coffeehouse where 65 percent of customers are under the age of 30. The stores offer free Wi-Fi, plenty of tables and chairs inside and out on the sidewalk, and often feature live musical performances. Young people gather there late into the night to socialize, work online, and eat local favorites like fried rice, tiny sandwiches filled with cheese or chocolate called pillow bread, and chicken katsu, a Japanese-style fried cutlet.

In Taiwan, 7-Elevens are more common than Starbucks in Seattle. In the capital city of Taipei, there are more than 4000 locations in a city of 23 million, with many city blocks capable of sustaining more than one location. Aside from purchasing local food and Slurpees, customers can pay credit card and utility bills, book travel arrangements, and buy small electronics like iPods. It’s also not unusual for people to have packages delivered to their closest 7-Eleven instead of their home, because it’s more convenient to pick it up late at night instead of trying to coordinate with a deliveryman. The government has even given into the popularity of the shops by allowing people to pay traffic tickets and property taxes there, and using them as a hub for special programs like health screenings.


More from mental floss studios