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Essay

Requiem for a Retailer

Just this past week, I decided to part ways with my long-time high-end clothes merchant, L.L. Bean.  I’d been at least an occasional Bean customer for over 40 years.  You’d have thought the decision would have been tough after so many years, but in fact, it wasn’t.  I found it surprisingly easy.  Truth is, I didn’t leave Bean’s.  They left me.

          Back in the Jimmy Carter years, when I first started shopping at Bean’s, the Bean label meant something, and I was proud to wear it.  Above all, that label meant durability and reliability.  The company’s catalogues, which I may say made quite passable winter evening reading, would often contain stories about customers who had returned items with defects after five, ten, even fifteen years, and received a full refund or replacement, no questions asked.  My own early experience with Bean items bore out that proud claim.  A Tattersall check dress shirt I’d been given in my mid 30s lasted a full twenty years.  Even then, I could easily have got another decade out of it, but for one sad fact.  By my mid 50s, I’d gained enough weight that the shirt no longer fit properly.  With much regret, I gave it to Goodwill.

          A pair of herringbone tweed pants I was given at about the same time as the shirt lasted even longer.  These pants, durable and altogether extraordinary enough that I celebrated them in an essay I published a number of years ago in The Globe & Mail, hang in my closet to this day, a proud if now only occasionally worn part of my wardrobe.  Last fall, they marked their 40th anniversary with me; occasional alterations have enabled them to adapt quite nicely to the shifting demands of a now-expanding, now-contracting waistline. It may be worth at least passing mention that the pants were made in the U.S.A. and bore a union label.

          Seeing me wearing these pants at the office on a -20° January day, a colleague remarked that they reminded him of the pants his grandfather used to wear for duck hunting.  Some might not have been pleased by such a remark.  It didn’t bother me in the slightest. I was actually slightly flattered that my colleague had noticed the pants’ most essential quality—their timelessness.  Certainly company founder L.L. Bean would have been flattered.  He’d gone into business specifically to provide warm, durable clothing to be worn outdoors in Maine’s harsh winters.  Had he still been alive, he might well have used the remark as a testimonial for the catalogue.

          Unfortunately, old L.L. is long gone.  So, too, at least from Bean stores and catalogues, is anything even remotely resembling those grey herringbone pants.  These days, you’re lucky to find all-wool grey flannels there.  Over time, the once-proud purveyor of indestructible, warm outdoor wear has morphed into a vaguely countrified, more than slightly yuppified supplier of casual and informal clothing to the young and beautiful people of the world.  Even if most of the catalogue pictures are still shot in Maine, there is no longer anything distinctively “Down East” about them.  They could as easily have been shot in Ohio or Minnesota.

          As L.L. Bean migrated farther and farther away from its core business concept, I found that it had fewer and fewer items of interest to me.  My disillusionment with the company began around 2010, when I ordered a parka to replace one I loved, and that was still totally serviceable after nearly twenty years, except for a broken zipper, which would have cost more than the parka was worth to replace.

          The price tag for the Bean parka was steep, but I figured I’d at the very least be getting a comfortable and serviceable garment that would last me for many years.  If anybody knew parkas, I figured, it would be L.L. Bean. It turned out that I was sadly mistaken.  The first thing I noticed about my new parka, on receiving it, was that the box in which it had been shipped was absolutely enormous. The second thing was that it had been made in Bangladesh.  What did the Bangladeshis know about parkas, anyway?  I would soon see!

          The Bean parka, as I found the first time I wore it, was half again bulkier and at least twice as heavy as the Canadian-made parka it was meant to replace.  It was so bulky that when I wore it for driving, it was difficult to get the seat belt around it.  And it was so very, very heavy that simply putting it on was a challenge.  The garment’s massive weight bearing down on my shoulders aggravated the already severe arthritis I had in both of them.  I probably should have returned it, but the garment had no actual defect that I felt would justify a return; it simply wasn’t right for me.  As well, the postage for a return would have been prohibitive.  In disgust, I gave the parka to a Sally Ann, and eventually wound up buying a much lighter winter jacket which, while not perfect, at least didn’t make my shoulders ache with its weight every time I put it on.

          I hadn’t realized it at the time, but my little parka escapade would be the beginning of the end for me and L.L. Bean.  By around 2015, there were just two items for which I really needed Bean’s:  their cotton flannel sleeping shirts, which at the time I could only obtain at Bean’s, and their Oxford cloth button-down collar dress shirts, which for some inexplicable reason I could not obtain in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where I was then living.  Slowly but inexorably, these last two bastions would crumble.

          In 2016, a Bean shirt then less than two years old ripped down its back seam.  I had the rip repaired, only to have the experience repeated less than six months later.  When a new rip appeared, in another place, I threw the shirt away in disgust.  By this time I was used to the fact that Bean’s shirts in the Obama years would not last anywhere as long as the old Tattersall shirt, from the Jimmy Carter years, had.  Still, I didn’t think it unreasonable to expect to get five or six years out of one of those shirts, especially since I had quite a few of them and even as the quality was going down, the price wasn’t.  The only thing that kept me buying those shirts from Bean’s was the near-impossibility of finding an Oxford cloth shirt in any colour other than white anywhere else.

          It would be the sleeping shirts—by the Obama years the one Bean item left bearing any resemblance to the company’s storied past and its old core business—that would finally drive me away from Bean’s for good.  For about a decade, I would order a new one every couple of years.  While I wasn’t pleased that the El Salvador-made shirts tended to wear out after four or five years, I was prepared to live with the fact. 

          Sometime around 2017 or 2018—I can’t place the year exactly—Bean’s simply discontinued their men’s sleeping shirts.  By this time, I’d discovered a new source of supply—the Vermont Country Store.  The only catch was that, unlike Bean’s, VCS didn’t provide free shipping to Canada.  So steep was the shipping charge, in fact, that it increased the total cost of the garment by about 50%.  For me, at the time, this was a non-starter.  I dusted off my improvisational skills, checked the Bean catalogue to determine what would be the equivalent women’s size to my XXL, and started ordering Bean’s women’s plaid flannel nightgowns.  To all intents and purposes, these were the same garment as I’d been wearing for years, though the women’s nighties lacked the men’s breast pocket and were a bit snugger around the arms.

          Then, early this year (2021), one of the women’s nighties developed a tear.  Worse than the seam rips that had afflicted my Bean shirts earlier, this was a major tear near the armpit.  I wasn’t (and am still not) sure whether it will even be possible to repair the torn nightgown, which was less than two years old when I discovered the tear.

          The tear reduced me to two serviceable nightgowns, which is simply not enough, given that during our current pandemic I will often spend entire days in a nightie.  With a sigh, I went to Bean’s online catalogue, only to discover that they had discontinued their entire line of women’s flannel nightgowns.

          Could this be for real, I wondered? Surely flannel nightgowns must have been a big-selling item.  I’ve certainly ordered enough of them, in their various guises, over the years.  But no, it was no mistake.  The nightgowns were, and are, nowhere to be found at Bean’s.  Which left me with no other choice than to order  replacements at Vermont Country Store, exorbitant shipping charge and all.

          Though I deeply resent having to pay $45 U.S. in shipping for two nightshirts that between them could not weigh more than about three pounds, the inevitable switch to VCS is not without its positive side.  First off, I’m back to men’s nightshirts, which are better tailored to fit my body than the women’s nightshirts from Bean’s were.  And second, and more important, VCS guarantees its nightshirts for life.  I don’t expect my nightgown nightmare to be repeated, but if it is, I’ll be given a replacement, free of charge.

          That guarantee is worth quite a bit to me, actually.  It takes me back to the good old days of L.L. Bean.  Who knows but that in the near future, Vermont Country Store may simply acquire its old rival outright?  My sleeping shirt saga suggests it may be well on the way to doing just that.

And what about those Oxford cloth shirts? I haven’t found any yet in my new home of Gatineau, Quebec. But I feel fairly confident of finding some, when I need to, in nearby Ottawa if not in Gatineau itself. Meanwhile, I’m wearing more flannel shirts these days, and fewer dressy Oxford cloth ones. My current ample supply of the latter seems likely to last me several more years, even given the greatly reduced workmanship and longevity of today’s clothing.

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