Big bucks from outdoors mystique; In Search of L. L. Bean, by M. R. Montgomery. Boston: Little, Brown. 242 pp. $16 .95.
As most interested parties surely know, L. L. (Leon Leonwood) Bean began what is now one of this country's mail-order giants on the strength of an item he designed save his feet during hunting season: the Maine Hunting Shoe. That was back in 1912, and the shoe with rubber bottom and leather upper is still a best seller.Skip to next paragraph
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So who was L. L. Bean, anyway?
Was he the cranky eccentric with all the answers for the woodsman?
Was he a tinkerer?
Was he a salesman? What was it like to work for him in the legendary Freeport , Maine, retail store? How did the company run? Did it make money?
If the answers to such questions are what you've been looking for since you got your first Bean chamois shirt, then you'd do well to read M. R. Montgomery's somewhat irreverent, often funny, and quite informative exploration of the Bean mythos, ''In Search of L. L. Bean.''
This is an odd book, an ambivalent book, for while it is finally clear that Montgomery, an outdoor sports columnist for the Boston Globe, appreciates Bean and company, he cannot resist showing us that the hard-core outdoorsman is not the true L. L. Bean customer.
No, says Mr. Montgomery, the main customer was and is the ''sport'': the eastern urban or suburban man or woman who buys chamois shirts and khakis and rag sweaters for leisure pursuits, not for eight-day canoe trips through the Allagash. And the sports begat preppies.
And the preppies, that much talked of but not precisely labeled species, is that group whose orders helped transform L. L. Bean from a company whose revenues were unchanged for years and years to a major force in America's $30 billion-a-year mail-order business. In 1964, Bean had sales of $3 million; in 1984, $230 million. That's growth.
How all that happened, how Bean changed from a quite poorly (but quaintly and folksily) managed company to a modern company with computer-controlled inventory , massive catalog mailings, and Harvard Business School employees is told in detail by Montgomery, as is the tremendous increase in women customers.
''In Search of L. L. Bean'' informs us of the failure of Bean's Best Rubber Union Suit, contains an entire long chapter on the making of the Maine Hunting Shoe, and those who have visited the store in Freeport (21/2 million people do each year) will enjoy the chapter titled ''The Clerk's Tale.''
Here's one former employee talking: ''You know how every . . . thing in the store was always 'Bean's Best.' Bean's Best Axe. Bean's Best Snowshoe. Harold, this other clerk, he went to sleep one night right on the checkout counter. So I made up a sign, it said 'Bean's Best Clerk.' It was just that kind of place.''
''In Search of L. L. Bean'' may not be Bean's Best Book, but it is amusing and written in a lively manner, and it illuminates the world out of which that well-known catalog comes. Montgomery gives us myth, history, and good reading.