I don’t know why Jim Croce didn’t mention L.L. Bean in his iconic cautionary tale, “You Don’t Mess Around With Jim.”
Bean’s is one of the world’s great stores. It was a household name long before “Jim,” with its long list of things you absolutely must not do, was written. Why couldn’t one of the warnings have been about the pitfalls of walking into L.L. Bean at high noon on a Saturday in the middle of summer?
It could replace, “You don’t spit into the wind.” First of all, we’re not children; we know that line isn’t about spitting. Plus, who needs to be told? I learned that lesson on my first school field trip, when I drank too much of the free milk at the dairy farm before the tour. You find out which way the wind is blowing in a hurry when you really, really needed to “spit.” Why couldn’t the song say, “You don’t go to Bean’s on a warm June weekend?”
Don’t get me wrong; L.L. Bean is one of the jewels in Maine’s crown. I think everybody should shop there – but not all at once. Since I live nearby, and it’s open literally all the time (one of my favorite facts about it is they don’t even have locks on the doors), I should have an off-peak shopping schedule down to a science by now. Instead, I take it for granted. That’s how I found myself stuck there. I had a little spare time, I needed some pants and a tee shirt, so I decided to skip lunch and hop up to Freeport.
I got sucked into staying by getting my usual great parking place. Parking is the only area of life in which I have good luck, and it’s spooky good luck. People tell me parking can be a nightmare at Bean’s, but somebody is always pulling out right next to the building just as I’m coming into the lot. It’s a minor superpower, but you learn not to question it.
This day, though, it gave me a false sense of confidence about getting in and out quickly. Unfortunately, it was packed. Not just crowded – Tokyo subway at rush hour crowded. When I opened the door in sporting goods to walk in, the ripple effect knocked over a lady over in sportswear.
I wasn’t about to admit this was a mistake because I’m, you know, male, so the only other option was to make the best of it. Which I did by deciding to become an observer of this mad scene, in the hope of learning something I could pass on to future generations. You’re welcome.
And so, in no particular order, here are some of those observations. First, about the store and staff:
• L.L. Bean is the answer to the question, “Where can I buy a maple sugar lobster even when it’s not maple sugar lobster season?”
• L.L. Bean is the best place on Earth to see a bored trout.
• People who work at L.L. Bean know what they’re talking about.
• People who work at L.L. Bean know more about L.L. Bean than I will ever know about anything.
• When employees ask if they can help you, they actually want to help you.
• The checkout people have the patience of Job, the stamina of world-class triathletes, and bladders made of chain mail.
• If you want to confuse the help, ask them where they keep the fancy clothes.
Here are some things I learned by watching shoppers and generally drinking in the atmosphere:
• There is a disturbing trend toward naming children for comic effect.
• The length of your wait in the checkout line is equal to the number of candy and toy barrels lining the route, times the number of children ahead of you, divided by the number of adults accompanying each child.
• A surprising number of children believe that blocking a stairway with a rope makes it a play area.
• Wading in an indoor pond is a great way to get your parents’ attention.
• Children do not respond to the word “no” unless it is shouted, at which point they look up and scan the horizon like prairie dogs.
• A good mantra for shopping at L.L. Bean is, “Must not discipline other people’s children.”
• No matter how ferally children behave in public, their parents still love them.
• At any given time, the majority of Canadian citizens not in Canada are at L.L. Bean.
• Somebody in Bar Harbor is selling a ton of tee shirts.
• Touching the items in the barrels by the registers after a large family has just been through the line is a great way to boost your immune system.
• There is no such thing as too much hand sanitizer.
It ended up being a pretty fascinating experience, and eventually I was able to get all the items I was shopping for, leading to this valuable, if depressing insight:
If the plaid shirt you’re considering for yourself could double as a tablecloth in an Italian restaurant, and you don’t play in the NFL, it’s time to put the cake down.
Portland resident Mike Langworthy, an attorney, former stand-up comic and longtime television writer, is fascinated by all things Maine. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.