The Boot: Derek Jeter, the Durham connection and sideways slippage

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Some little-known trivia behind L.L. Bean’s most wanted Christmas gift

They’re as Maine as mud season and moose, as Stephen King and Red’s Eats, as dee-ah and “The Way Life Should Be,” and L.L.Bean can’t make ’em fast enough.

The company expects to sell 450,000 pairs of its Bean boots in 2014, according to L.L.Bean officials, the most it’s ever sold in a year. That’s up from 70,000 in 2007.

Early projections for next year? A cool half-million pairs.

The company currently has a backlog of 60,000 orders that could approach 100,000 by the end of December.

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They’ve been hot before (see “The Official Preppy Handbook” circa 1980) and they’ll surely be hot again. 

Below, everything you ever wanted to know about Maine’s most happening boot.

But would Carrie Bradshaw wear them?

Bean boots exist in high heels! Sort of. Years ago, Manolo Blahnik sold an homage to the boot in Neiman Marcus — rubber-bottom, leather upper, laces, stiletto heel and all. There’s a pair in the official L.L.Bean archives. (Happen to be a size 7.5? A pair was selling on eBay this week for $275.) 

Step one: Lewiston

Bean boot’s rubber bottoms have been made in Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Arkansas and, for a brief stint in the 1980s, Lewiston. They’ve been made in Lewiston continuously since 2007, then hand-sewn over in Brunswick. According to the company, it takes 45 minutes to make one Bean boot from start to finish.

Slipping sideways

Early Bean boots were sold either with or without a heel and with either a crepe sole or grey rubber one, according to Jim Witherell of Lewiston, author of “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company.” (The book is published by Tilbury House and available at local bookstores and Amazon.com.)

“In one early design, the boot’s sole had ribs running across it, causing the wearer to slide sideways,” he said.

The boot finally came out in its iconic all-over chain sole tread in 1947.

Sew local

Ted and Gertrude Goldrup from Durham where the original husband-and-wife team that kick-started Bean boot production. He cut the leather and she sewed the uppers. (Her sewing machine has been saved by the company for posterity.)

“Their son would take them into Freeport,” Witherell said. “That’s where L.L. Bean had a cobbler sew the leather uppers to the rubber bottoms.”

Dairy farmer-approved

In September 1911, Freeport dairy farmer Edgar Conant bought a prototype pair of Bean boots from Leon Leonwood Bean and wrote a testimonial a year later for Bean’s first sales flier in the fall of 1912:

“I wore these shoes two weeks moose hunting last October and then put them right into hard service on the milk farm right up through the first of March. . . . Your shoe is not only OK for hunting, but is the lightest and best-wearing farm shoe I ever had.”

According to Witherell, Bean mailed out 1,000 fliers in his first sales push. It was a three-page circular with the fourth page left blank; the sportsman didn’t have anything left to say. The first pairs sold for $3.50, with free shipping and a repair kit.

I await your order . . .

You don’t build an empire by being a wallflower. 

Bean followed up his initial flier with a second mailing to people he hadn’t heard from yet, like F.N. Sawyer from Wakefield, Mass., in this typed note saved in the L.L.Bean archive:

“Dear Sir,

Recently I sent you circular (sic) of my Maine Hunting Shoe. As I have not received your order, I take the liberty of again calling your attention to my shoe. I am receiving so many compliments from all over the states that I am sure the shoe would please you and am willing to send you a pair on approval. . . . I enclose order blank (sic) and envelope for your convenience. Yours truly, L L Bean”

Newer, tougher!

In 1999, the Bean boot got its first major revamp, of sorts.

“After nine years, 35 prototypes, and 100 field tests, the new boot — which looks the same as the old one — is now 12 percent lighter, 14 percent more slip resistant, 35 percent warmer and a staggering 250 percent more abrasion-resistant,” Witherell said.

Vrooom!

For its 100th anniversary, L.L.Bean rolled out its first Bootmobile in 2012 and debuted a second in 2013. The vehicles have racked up a combined 103,000 miles so far, according to L.L. Bean spokesman Mac McKeever. (Want more trivia? In real life, those Bean boots would be shoe size 747 and 708, respectively, and fit a wearer taller than the Statue of Liberty.)

One of the primary Bootmobile drivers is a registered Maine guide and another is a Baxter State Park ranger of 27 years.

“We work hard to hire folks that have an inherent passion for the outdoors and a desire to share that passion with others,” McKeever said.

Mmm

Also in honor of L.L.Bean’s centennial, Gifford’s ice cream unveiled a Muddy Bean Boots flavor in 2012: vanilla with caramel ripple and brownie bits.

Speedy delivery

When he dropped a pair of boots in the mail, Leon Leonwood Bean was the first person to ship a package using the then-new Parcel Post service at the Freeport Post Office in January 1913. 

“It was really coming up with the right thing at the right time — now he was able to send them all over the country,” Witherell said. “It was just random, dumb luck that the post office came up with Parcel Post just in time to coincide with L.L. Bean’s invention of the boot.”

Pop a collar, doff a boot

The author of “The Official Preppy Handbook” declared L.L.Bean “nothing less than Prep Mecca” in 1980. With that shout-out in the bestselling book, “sales of the company’s boots and clothing increase by more than 40 percent,” Witherell said.

More recently, the boots got a nod in Glamour magazine and during 2014 spring fashion week in New York.

Celebrity sightings

The company built Derek Jeter a special pair of Bean boots — blue, and lined with an official New York Yankees jersey — as a retirement gift. The boots have also been spotted on the notable feet of Red Sox great Ted Williams (who once tied to buy the company, McKeever said,) Babe Ruth and Ernest Hemingway.

“Bill Clinton came to the store once and got a pair,” McKeever said.

Hello, 2015

Bean boots — when you can find them — already come in classic brown, blue, white and red, but new hues await next year.

“We’ll be putting out a new flannel-lined version and we have plans to offer boots with some really fun, new colors,” McKeever said.

Proud papa

Founder Leon Leonwood Bean died in 1967 at age 94. What would he likely make of the current it-crowd love?

“I think that L.L. would’ve been very pleased, proud, flattered and maybe even a bit humbled,” said McKeever. “This popularity not only speaks to the functional innovation of the boot, but the notion that they have also become ‘cool,’ combined with the fact they are tougher than a tire, are 100 percent satisfaction guarantee and are handmade right here in Maine.”

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