L.L. Bean’s story is also America’s story. The ideas and events that drove the company’s development are all related to what was happening in the wider world. From the rugged, individualistic legacy of Teddy Roosevelt in the 1910s to soldiers’ experiences in both World Wars, from the “back to the land” movement in the 1960s and 1970s that brought millions of people to the wilderness for the first time to the Preppy Handbook craze of the 1980s when the styles of New England suddenly enthralled the nation, Guaranteed to Last tells a complete and fascinating story that will engage every reader.
At the heart of the book is a fresh telling of the fascinating L.L. Bean story―the tale of how an unknown hunter, working with $400 in borrowed capital, invented a new kind of shoe and, marching to the beat of his own drum, remade the outdoor industry. And it’s a story about how the company helped America learn to love the outdoors. A brisk narrative based on fresh interviews and research by Jim Gorman, a leading travel and adventure journalist, traces the most important incidents in the company’s history, as well as the defining products and the most memorable people.
The book will feature scores of photographs, illustrations, and pieces of ephemera, including fascinating images of L.L. Bean hunting in Maine in the 1910s; the earliest mailers and catalogs that defined the look and voice of the company; personal correspondence to L.L. Bean from every era; snapshots of ordinary Americans outfitted in their L.L. Bean gear; and much more. It is both a celebration of 100 years of L.L. Bean, and a look at the essential qualities of the brand that will guide its next century.
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Jim Gorman is an award-winning book and magazine author. He's a contributing
editor to Backpacker and Popular Mechanics magazines, and his writing has
appeared in Men's Health, Runner's World, This Old House, Country Living,
National Geographic Adventure, Better Homes & Gardens, Endless Vacation,
Bicycling, Boy's Life, and elsewhere. He writes primarily about the
environment, outdoor exploration on foot and mountain bike, health &
wellness, home & garden, and energy conservation.
Jim's work has won a variety of awards, including a National Magazine Award
(2003) for "Wild In The Parks," National Geographic Adventure Magazine;
Travel Writer of the Year Award from the Caribbean Tourism Organization for
""Wild Beauties," Endless Vacation Magazine; and the Pluma de Plata (Silver
Quill) Award for Best Travel Writing on Mexico from the Mexico Tourism
Board, for "Zacatecas: Desert Rose," also in Endless Vacation Magazine. He
was also a National Magazine Award Finalist in 2005 for "Grail Trails,"
National Geographic Adventure Magazine.
Prior to his career as a freelance writer, Jim was an editor at Backpacker
Magazine, the website GORP.com, and the environmental journal World Watch.
How did L.L. Bean thrive as scores of other retailers withered? Durable goods, a great reputation, and savvy retailing had a lot to do with it. But America was also changing in ways that played to L.L. Bean’s strengths. Paid vacation, a foreign concept during the Industrial Era, was becoming the norm (for those lucky enough to be working). By the end of the Thirties, half of American workers would earn paid time off, the luckiest enjoying two weeks or more. Whereas a Sunday afternoon spent picnicking in a local park was the best the average person could muster at the turn of the twentieth century, Americans in the late-1930s had sufficient time off to get out of town. And with a shiny Buick or Ford in the driveway, they now had the means.
Throughout the Victoria Era and into the early decades of the twentieth century, vacationing was a distinctly upper class pursuit. While the masses sweltered through the summer months in the inner city, high society retired to resorts and grand hotels at White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia; Saratoga Springs, New York; Mackinaw Island, Michigan; and the like. Had they the money to stay in such luxury, it’s doubtful the new breed of footloose wage earners would have been welcome. Instead, America’s middle class took to the road. With practically no tourist infrastructure of inexpensive hotels or motels in existence, vacation destinations were limited. Out of necessity, leisure travelers took to tenting. To these free-wheelers, it didn’t much matter whether the ideal camping spot was in a national park or farmer’s field as long as it was far from the crowded, noisy city. Inexpensive and liberating, “auto camping” was the rage, and L.L. fine-tuned his catalog to meet the needs of the “tin can tourist.”
L.L.'s selection process for new items for his catalog was not based on market surveys or merchandising analyses. He simply went with his gut, and with is personal experience. If he used and approved of a product while on one of his hunting and fishing trips, it stood a good chance of getting in. Sometimes a product was developed in-house and then field-tested until the kinks worked out. Other times, as with the Hudson’s Bay Blanket, he simply offered another manufacturer’s product. The particulars behind L.L.’s decisions on product placement in the early years are usually unknown. He wasn’t much for record keeping and even less inclined toward noting his thoughts on paper. From our perspective, a hundred years after he went out on a limb to sell a new boot, L.L.’s marketing skills seem to have sprung up fully formed. For such an outgoing public figure, to this day he engenders some degree of mystery. Much of what we do know about him is reflected from oral histories and accounts kept by the people who worked or hunted with him. Justin Williams, a longtime Bean employee in the early days, provided such a mirror. His recollection of a particular duck hunting trip in the late-1930s gives us a glimpse of product development, L.L.-style:
“I had this old duck-call that I got around 1938 or so—one of the best ever made,” said Williams. “L.L. and Danny Snow were in one blind and I was in another with the dog. So I got this old duck-call out and used it. Within a few minutes there must have been 500 ducks flying around the blinds. I mean the sky was filled with ducks. L.L. was standing there in shock, and ’til the day he died, he never got over it. You can believe that the next fall he had duck-calls in his catalog … patterned after the one I used that day.”
Williams also witnessed what happened when one of L.L.’s field tests went awry. In this case, L.L. was trying out a fancy new fishing rod pressed on him by a salesman for possible inclusion in the catalog. The fact that several other outfitters had placed big orders for the rod didn’t impress L.L. “He took the rod on a fishing trip, hooked onto a big fish, the rod snapped in half and went overboard. That was the end of that,” said Williams.
“It wasn’t easy to sell to L.L.,” recalled Williams. “He had to see the truth of things for himself. If he put a product in the catalog, you can bet it was tested and was worth having, and no doubt about it at all. He started building a reputation for that right from the beginning.”
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