Come close. They won't bite though some have been gnawed upon, chewed, and bitten themselves (mostly by labs and golden retrievers, if social media is the source). Weirdly, the weathered boots piled into a bin, located in a far-off corner of the factory, don't smell so bad either. It's hard not to want to touch them, to trace their wrinkles. Each boot carries its own landscape of dings and dust, faded in its own peculiar shade, with its own particular history.
If only these boots could talk, one imagines there'd be a gruff clamor of excitement, a cacophony of leather-tongued voices, the drawling Daniel Boones to the Brahmin über-preps, and everything in between. The L.L. Bean Maine Hunting Boot has gone on expeditions to both Poles, and been commissioned by the U.S. military to go to war as well. They've popped up on the feet of Babe Ruth and Derek Jeter, Jake Gyllenhaal, Chloë Sevigny, and recently, as shown on Twitter, the feet of a woman dancing on stage during a Bruce Springsteen concert. They seem to wander college quads and main streets with equal ubiquity. And when the boots return to where they were made in Brunswick, Maine, to be repaired, each is tagged with its home port for resending: Lawrence, Kansas … Decatur, Alabama … Shelter Island, New York … Staunton, Virginia … Salt Lake City, Utah … Bucksport, Maine … Memphis, Tennessee… . Once, a pair of boots in the bin had a return address that specified an exact igloo in Alaska.
The reconditioning process is a fascinating mix of hard-boiled, practical frugality (the boot's creator, Leon Leonwood, or L.L., Bean thought it silly to throw away five bucks—the cost of the boot in his day—when the soles were worn) and heirloom preservation. This is the odd thing about the boot: It inspires true emotion. It connects us to our past, and partners with us on life's strange journey ahead, enabling our adventures and the "look" we fancy for ourselves. A sampling of comments on Twitter reflects the cornucopic reactions to the boot, from patriotism to nostalgia:
Near lunchtime on a Tuesday in January, the L.L. Bean boot factory in Brunswick is a thrumming hippodrome the size of an airplane hangar, a place filled with the clatter and hum of machinery, the metallic music of cutting, fitting, skiving, stitching, and brushing. The scent of solvent and leather hangs thickly; light flows through a filmy window. It could be any factory, anywhere, except no: It's an American factory making an American product entirely out of American materials, a rare trifecta in this era of offshore, chockablock manufacturing. Even more remarkable, the product—a century-old hunting boot known by its odd hybrid of soft leather uppers married to waterproof rubber bottoms—is the cornerstone of a $1.6 billion mail-order empire with a hearty American legend of its own. Each boot takes about forty-five minutes to make—and, given the whimsies of demand and supply, customers seem to wait with the same bated breath, react with the same delight, when they finally get their hands on a pair.
Take last year alone: Roughly half a million Bean Hunting Boots were manufactured and sold, marking a 300 percent increase from a decade ago. Even the guys over in corporate can't explain it. They see it less as a fluke than as a question of longevity: If you stick around long enough, you become the trend again.
"Some people say it's the ugliest boot made; some say it's the least comfortable boot they've ever worn," says Willie Lambert, corporate merchant for L.L. Bean. "It's about heritage. But sometimes we find ourselves scratching our head. We know it's a legend, but we don't exactly know why."
All you really need to know is that the waiting list on back orders—from the sorority sisters of the SEC to old-school hunters—recently ran as high as a hundred thousand. Inside the company, where the boot is simply known as the Boot, they can't crank out product fast enough. "We keep adding people, shifts," says Royce Haines, the senior manager of manufacturing. "We're about to go from six to seven days—and we're still running behind."
The Boot was famously birthed in 1912 by one L.L. Bean, an orphan who came to love the Maine outdoors, and who swore, after a particularly miserable hunting trip involving cold, wet feet, that he'd never repeat the experience. Thus was born the platypus of footwear, the Frankenstein of mukluks, the Reese's Peanut Butter Cup of galoshes. ("I took a pair of shoe rubbers from the stock on the shelves," L.L. would later write, "and had a shoemaker cut out a pair of 7.5-inch tops. The local cobbler stitched the whole thing together.") It both made perfect sense and no sense at all: His was a crepe-soled, gum-rubber, soft water-elk-leather hybrid, the likes that hadn't been seen before. Today, though replicated by many (including Kanye West for his Yeezy line), not all that much has changed about the Boot, including the fact that it's never left Maine. Here in the factory, one finds a mix of both modern and old equipment, rows of clicker cutters, eyelet and stitching machines, and at the far end, a $1.2 million newfangled, injection-molding machine that makes the chain-tread rubber bottoms.
Now, an inspector roves upstream and down, searching for errant eyelets, a bad stitch. Workers focus, jabber, and joke; an air of convivial intensity presides. A woman sits at a stitching machine, working a three-line process that connects the rubber bottom to the leather upper. At the injection-molding machine with its twelve stations, two women in hijabs retrieve and transfer pairs of thermoplastic-rubber soles, one hundred per hour.
"They all really make it look easy," says Haines, "but it's hard work." According to Haines, it's a traditional three-hundred-worker, cut-to-pack operation where the raw materials—leather, shearling, rubber, rope—are converted to shapes and parts of the Boot, after which the elements are stitched together. Standing on an observation deck overhead you might blur your eyes only a little and imagine this exact scene from many decades ago.
For me, on this wintry Tuesday before lunch, here's one more wonder: In an unnoticed corner of the factory, among the shiny new boots and the flurry of activity to make them, sits that container full of old, in some cases fantastically grungy, hunting boots. Some are beaten, mangled, left for dead. Here is the Box of Memories, the Bin of Boots with a Story to Tell. Each pair waiting to be reconditioned.
At a cost of about forty dollars, the reconditioning process for any one pair takes about half an hour. The Boot is clamped into an ultramodern band saw, the rubber bottom excised. The leather upper is checked for mars or degradation, then the whole thing is reassembled, new life breathed in, the next chapter waiting to be written.
In the bin, you find one gem after another: the brick-red, balkanized-rubber bottoms from the 1940s, with a request to resole. Another from the same era, with disintegrated leather uppers. There are boots of more recent vintage but sometimes these are even more worn. A pair, all gunked and faded, seems thirty years older than its real age. Another seems sprayed with tar. From city street to farm field, every boot is its own mystery—and the people working here consider themselves boot-readers of sorts. Sometimes the company will get a boot so old, a rep will call the owner to see if L.L. Bean can buy it back for the archive.
Standing before the sun-cracked, rain-soaked, snow-blown altar-pile of ragged boots now, I can't help but wonder: What must these boots mean to their owners that they would hold so fast in this age of instant disposal to a near-ruined artifact, harboring some forlorn hope of wearing them just one more time?
As it turns out, that's the very question I'm able to put to David Richman, a voluble drummer living in Brooklyn whose boots have just recently been returned to him after reconditioning by L.L. Bean. Richman, fifty, has owned his for about fifteen years, and with the treads worn and the thread unraveling, was about to regretfully give them up before he heard they could be repaired. He gladly sent them off, and then he had a call from someone at the company, saying, Yes, we have your boots here. We're going to give you a new rubber bottom, restitch, and return them on the truck today.
"That's something that's never happened before," Richman told me. "It's kind of mind-boggling to get that attention. These boots are one of the most important things in my life." They really are. Richman ascribes supernatural properties to his boots. "When they started to leak," he said, "I felt weakened." He'd worn his boots in all seasons, at gigs, even in the music studio. L.L. Bean hunting boots are not the footwear of choice for most drummers—sneakers or bare feet work just fine—but Richman wore his when he played. So, to his mind, the boots were part of the music.
When his boots were recently returned with a new rubber bottom, he said, "Everything familiar about them was still there. And everything broken was fixed. I have other boots—expensive, nice boots—but these are my armor. I basically haven't taken them off since they were returned." Richman's attachment comes as a kind of response, as well, to what he sees as the ills of our consumerist culture. He finds his kids are left always wanting: new video games, clothes, whatever. He likes that the boots have a history, that they represent authenticity and an era when people lived more simply, recycling the items of their life. He waxed almost poetical about the stitching on his boots. "The new stitches don't take the exact path that the others did," he said. "The original track of stitches was put there years ago by whoever made the boot—and now the boot has these tracks by a new person. I love these imperfections! All these people are in the boots too. And there's real power in that—or I really do feel powerful when I wear them."
When I put the same question about buying new versus refurbishing to Thayer Burgess, of Leton, Kentucky, a twenty-four-year-old whose boots had been recently in the bin but were now back on his feet, he offered the most direct answer possible. His father and grandfather once wore Bean boots. And his family still possessed the latter pair, bought fifty or sixty years ago. So, he'd bought his in their wake, and wanted to take great care of them, too, whether camping or just getting around in winter. "The idea," he said, "is that I'll keep mine until I can give them to my kids one day. Boy or girl—I'd like to pass the tradition along."
Back at the Box of Memories on this January Tuesday, the boots mutter, mingle, and wait. The blade gets put to one pair, then the next. The boots are resewn and resurrected, while the rest of the factory cranks along, stitching, skiving, the old and new thriving side by side.
According to representatives at L.L. Bean, the Boot is still the flagship product, the one on which the company stakes its reputation. Sixty-seven percent of the cost of the boots is in the materials. And one imagines a high percentage of the value comes with the time expended in making each new piece. Even now, the company refuses to do little things—changing thread size or the patented back stays, moving offshore—that might increase production but would change the Boot irrevocably.
You imagine L.L. would want it just this way. You can almost hear his voice in the metallic whine of midday: In our oversanitized world, the Boot—in the bin, fresh off the line—gives us permission to get dirty, to work hard, to walk off the beaten path, to put ourselves on some interesting edge of a new adventure.
When three million people a year show up at the twenty-four-hour L.L. Bean mecca in Freeport, pushing past the parked Bootmobile, rivering around the huge boot statue that stands sentinel at the entrance—when they walk through the never-locked front door—what they come looking for, in part, is this dream. They put on L.L.'s old boot and disappear into the past, the forest, the future. They become part of a tribe. Their promise and pledge is to a platypus boot and America. It keeps their feet warm and dry, while they're busy being wild and free.