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Freeport, Maine: Shopping and Exploring

Freeport, Maine: Shopping and Exploring
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L.L. Bean: 4:48 a.m.

It’s nearly 5 a.m. and you’re standing at the gateway to Maine’s North Woods.

Well, actually you’re wandering through the hunting and fishing annex of the vast L.L. Bean retail empire in Freeport, joined by bleary-eyed, coffee-fueled hunters who have been driving all night from Connecticut and New York and have stopped by to pick up last-minute items before setting off into the moose-thick woods.

Freeport is one of the great shopping destinations of New England, a small town where name-brand stores go for vacation, settling in to small Cape Cod-, Colonial-, and Federal-style homes to escape the stress of the big city. The small-town setting evidently puts them in a expansive mood, for they offer up fine deals on their merchandise. During peak shopping season — a rainy afternoon in August, or leading up to the December holidays — parking is more scarce here than at your local mall on Christmas Eve.

But unlike a mall, Freeport is decidedly not a single organism. It’s a collection of small, self-contained universes. And in the course of 24 hours, you can visit a great many of them — such as the fragment of the North Woods, courtesy of L.L. Bean, complete with artificial trout pond.

Being a gateway to Maine’s outdoors is the historic source of Freeport’s current look. In fact, Leon Leonwood Bean built this town on a pair of waterproof hunting boots. In 1912, he started selling Maine Hunting Shoes by mail and from the basement of his brother’s apparel shop here. Made with rubberized lower sections wedded to a flexible leather upper, they allowed hunters to slosh around in Maine’s famous boggy land while keeping their feet dry.

Bean started selling other items of interest to outdoorsmen. He noticed that hunters kept notoriously odd hours, so, making a commitment to customer service that continues to this day, he kept the store open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When you enter the big main store at L.L. Bean (there are also three satellite shops nearby), notice that the doors have neither latches nor locks. It still never closes.

Today L.L. Bean is perhaps best known for its clothing, but it continues to offer a good selection of tents, camp stoves, GPS systems, rain gear, and outdoor geegaws that make you marvel that you ever did without. (Who knew that water bottles came in so many colors and shapes?)

Not surprisingly, other shops catering to outdoors people have cropped up nearby. DeLorme, a mapping company that started in Freeport and is now headquartered just down the road in Yarmouth, launched its ubiquitous 50-state atlas series when it realized hunters and fishermen needed a way to find their way around obscure logging roads. At Lincoln Canoes & Kayaks just south of town, you can build a small fleet perfect for exploring the rivers and lakes of the state, first trying out the boats on the tiny pond behind the shop.

Of course, you’ll have to wait until a little later in the morning for that. Things are still pretty dark everywhere except at L.L. Bean at 5 a.m.

Anne Klein: 10:12 a.m.

A field guide to shoppers in Freeport includes three chief species. There are the Hit and Run shoppers, like the hunters who need only tent stakes and three-legged folding camp stools and want to be back on the highway within 15 minutes, tops. Then comes their opposite, the Snackers, who move with a somnambulant shuffle down the sidewalk with ice cream cones or pastries in hand. They pause in front of each shop, listening for a small whisper that might lure them in to sniff the wares.

And then there are the Sharks, who know precisely what they want. These are type A people whose prey is bargains with a capital B. They know what the prices are on Madison Avenue in New York, they know how to tell if it’s an overstock of the original or a cheaper, outlet-branded knockoff sharing a label. They must always keep moving, and they are undistracted by chum.

Guided by some internal radar, they move up and down the racks of clothing with a choppy gait, like that mother and grown daughter team over there, dressed nearly alike. They move briskly, then divide up at the racks in Anne Klein, walking down either side and reporting on their findings with a running commentary. Just down the block at Polo Ralph Lauren, three people shop this morning as they chat on Bluetooth cell phone headsets (“We’re in Saco!” one says loudly).

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

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