Column: Crazy for L.L. Bean

I can’t pinpoint when I first encountered an L.L. Bean catalog. I assume it was before I landed in Vermont after I completed my Vietnam Navy service.

Why, I have no idea. But this much is certain: Once I settled in to my Vermont era, the folks in Freeport, Maine, where Bean’s headquarters is situated, long before the internet purchase-tracking demons descended upon us, must have noticed that there is this guy in Vermont who is in the super loyal customer echelon.

There were days when almost every article of clothing on my body had a Bean label on it, absent underpants. Socks to hats and everything in between. Heavy-duty socks, sturdy pants, gray T-shirts (which to this day I propose I single-handedly made nationally popular), the “chamois” shirts, the denim shirts, the field coats, the flannel-lined field shirts (the latter two in the signature “saddle” shade), sweaters (notably the navy blue and white Norwegian model made of “un-scoured yarns,” whatever the heck they were). One time I ordered a middle-weight belted jacket that some women for some reason found attractive. Wore that baby out, of course.

And then there are the boots. The classic Maine hunting boot, with its brown rubber soles and tan leather tops, still looks pretty cool to me today, be they actual Beans or knock-offs. Back when Vermont had real snow, they were the perfect footwear. No fussy insulated interiors (that came later), and you had a choice of many heights, from shoe-like to towering knee-approaching beasts that suggested long rambles in the leavings of blizzards. I went for the 10-inch size.

They had a chain-like tread that left identifiable tracks in the one-in-million happenstance that you headed out into the woods and didn’t come back when you were expected, due to any manner of mishaps or only too much hard cider.

I’m not sure Bean still makes this offer, but back in the day they advertised that if you wore out the rubber soles you could send the boots back to Freeport and they would put on a fresh set of bottoms on the existing uppers. This always struck me as outlandish that anyone would do such a thing. But I am proud to say, in a quirky way, that I actually did. I wore out that pair of boots, too.

I bought a new pair of Bean boots many years ago, and they sit in the Island garage basically unused. The leather uppers show lots of wear and soles still show visible signs of chain tread. But I’ve moved on to newer-fangled boots that are easier to put on and warmer. I glance at the Beans with a kind of embarrassment, but, lord knows, I’ve paid my dues to the Maine hunting boot.

Bean products were sturdily built, although nowadays most of their stuff probably is made somewhere not in North America. My field coat and field shirt are still in the rotation after decades of use in several states. Some of the cuffs are fraying, but that is a stylistic plus in my eyes. The gray T-shirts and Norwegian sweater are long gone.

In a rarity, I recently wore out a Bean product, a black fleece vest I’d had forever. It was still wearable, but I found out the hard way that its side pockets had worn through, allowing Metro cards, U.S. currency, keys, lip balm, ferry tokens and anything else you would put in your pocket to fall to the planet’s surface. Reluctantly, I went on Bean website to look for a replacement. Inexplicably, there was no fleece vest in black, which is outrageous.

As I write, I am now wearing a navy blue fleece vest with burnt orange piping and the Bean logo featuring Maine’s Mt. Katahdin on the front. It’s fine but I still have the old black one in reserve for those times when I’m not carrying anything in the side pockets.  That vest and I have been through a lot and I’m not tossing it anytime soon.

Unless we’re surprised by a March Island snowstorm, I will let the Bean boots stand at the ready, as they have for years. But if the flakes fly, I guarantee the Maine hunting boots will be strapped on. I owe it to them.