I have been, for most of my adult life, a big fan of L.L. Bean, the giant mail order house in Freeport, Maine. The Bean catalogs carried with them, to whatever sweltering climate I lived in, the breath of a cool Canadian wind through the pines. They offered sound, thrifty items of New England--from the silly duck shoes to the flannel-lined dungarees to the splendid maple syrup. And durable? For more presidential campaigns than I care to remember, and to this day, my carry-on luggage has been a blue L.L. Bean bag, which I received as a gift 30 years ago. It appears to be indestructible. It seems destined to outlive me and bear my ashes.
I have welcomed, over the years, Bean’s expansion. There were stores I could actually visit--without making the pilgrimage to Freeport--and specialized catalogs that I enjoyed browsing, pouring over the fly fishing gear and kayak paddles, though I knew I would never use them. The descendants of Leon Leonwood Bean offered stuff you didn’t find somewhere else. Square? Sure. But that was part of the appeal.
“This is the shirt I personally use on all my hunting and fishing trips,” Mr. Bean wrote in his 1933 catalog, beside a picture of a chamois shirt that, pretty much, stayed the same for 80 years.
So I was stunned this week when the latest Bean catalog arrived at my home. On the cover were two urbane twenty-somethings, strolling down a city street. And I gasped when I opened the cover, and found skinny jeans, and brushed lambswool zip cardigans, tight leather jackets, and stretch cord pencil skirts. It was Bean’s new “signature” collection, the catalog announced. No, what it was was J. Crew. They might as well discard ol’ Leonwood’s middle name, and call the store “L. Bean.”
Okay, the corduroy suit looks pretty cool. And it’s not like Bean has fallen victim to an Armani takeover. There are still chamois shirts, albeit in colors like “adobe red.” But the duck boots--or “Maine hunting shoes,” as Bean calls them--look like they’ve been visited in the night by Doc Martin. And the “signature” version of the famous New England field coat is promised to be “equally at home on city streets.”
Say it ain’t so, L. Bean. Tell me that you’ve not become just one more interchangeable suburban mall store. I am watching the mail, hoping to find this is but an aberration. Give me my maple syrup back.