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L.L.Bean boots kicking up a lot of business lately

Shannon Mullen Feb 20, 2012

Adriene Hill: Now to Maine, where outdoor outfitter L.L.Bean is elebrating its 100th year in business. At the same time, one of its oldest products is making a big comeback.

New Hampshire Public Radio’s Shannon Mullen has more.

Shannon Mullen: It was sort of a homecoming. Almost 20 years ago, I bought a pair of L.L.Bean’s Maine Hunting Shoes, so it seemed fitting to wear my boots to Brunswick, Maine, on a tour of the factory where they were made.

Cindy Obie runs a triple-needle sewing machine that stitches the rubber bottoms to the top leather part of the boot.

Mullen: How long have you been working here?

Cindy Obie: Oh, 19 years.

Mullen: You make it look really easy.

Obie: Thank you.

Mullen: You think my boots came through this particular spot?

Obie: Yes they did. Quite a while ago, though.

Mullen: Yes, is it that obvious?

Obie: Yeah, the old bottoms.

I prefer to call them broken-in.

And this year, my old boots are more popular than ever. L.L.Bean says it’s on pace to move more than a half-million pairs in 2012 — three times more than it sold a few years ago. Not bad for an old-school relic born out of Yankee ingenuity.

The way the story goes, back in 1912, the company’s founder and namesake, Leon Leonwood Bean got tired of coming home from his hunting trips with cold, wet feet.

Tom Armstrong: So, L.L. had this idea.

Tom Armstrong is chief merchandising officer at L.L.Bean.

Armstrong: He cut off a rubber boot — I think it was a fishing boot or something — and he sewed on a leather upper. And people bought them, and his first 100 boots he made, 90 came back. They did not work.

Bean eventually perfected the design, and today the boots are one of the company’s best-sellers. They’ve even been featured in fashion magazines — the December issue of Glamour called the Bean boot this winter’s “Unexpected It Shoe.”

Armstrong: I think there’s something about the authenticity of a product that’s just designed to do what it’s doing, and it works. And for whatever reason, Americans are loving it again.

At the Brunswick boot factory, operations manager John Camelio is hiring more than 100 new workers and adding a third shift to keep up with the demand.

John Camelio: It’s no surprise to me. I think people love a great value.

Mullen: And all the sudden you’re at the cutting edge of fashion.

Camelio: I wouldn’t have expected that.

In Brunswick, Maine, I’m Shannon Mullen for Marketplace.

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