A few weeks before Christmas, the kid and I ventured to the new L. L. Bean store at the mall nearby. (Yes, the same increasingly upscale mall I wrote about here.) We went in search of a very handy, utterly pragmatic wind-up flashlight for Todd/Daddy.
The store was beautiful, lots and lots of wood but not all of it spotless; there were a few carefully chosen pieces with wear and character. It was huge, two stories, with a giant staircase in the middle, incredibly high ceilings (so as to easily accommodate standing kayaks, of course), little training areas and small classrooms tucked away, and lots of trademark pine and sage greens, perhaps to fool the shopper into feeling as if he or she is actually in the great outdoors.
The entire staff was impeccably mannered, eager to assist but never fawning or stalking the customer. Everything was so neat, so tidy, so utterly organized and shiny. We wandered for a few minutes, found what we’d been seeking, looked around at the overpriced clothes upstairs, and picked out some adorable doggy slippers for my boy to purchase with some early Christmas money he’d received.
It was lovely, and just a little bit intimidating. I tried to figure out my discomfort as we left the store, bag in hand, and were bid farewell by the friendly and courteous greeter who was stationed at the door. I love the outdoors, love fresh air and sunshine and stretching my legs on a grassy slope while the breeze blows my hair. I should feel at ease in a place that sells all this gear. I don’t ski, or kayak, but it shouldn’t matter—Bean has always been about fun and practicality outside.
And it still is. It’s a great company. The stuff is high quality, and works, and lasts. I want no beef with Bean.
But it’s this whole outdoorsy “lifestyle” that’s turning me off. With all the giant outdoor stores springing up—Cabela’s, Gander Mountain, Sportsman’s Warehouse—it feels as if I am being sold a shopping experience, a whole package deal in which I buy the stuff and then live the life. And that smacks of lies to me.
I remember hearing about the original Bean store in New England from a friend who had the pleasure of visiting it yearly while visiting family up north. Her descriptions of the place didn’t ring true while I walked through this newest store. Where were the real woodsmen and women? Why wasn’t anyone wearing a coat that didn’t match the rest of the outfit? How come no one was clumping around in work boots? I wonder what would happen at that pretty, spotless store if a guy who owned a couple of those infamous Labs came in and had dog poo on his shoe… Would he be asked to leave? Would the other customers be offended? And are people who love the outdoors always so well-heeled? I thought they could be gruff, perhaps even sloppy. I didn’t know they all were clean shaven and colored their hair. Not ones shopper even raised his or her voice. Aren't people who love being outside ever loud? The true outdoorsmen and women I’ve known didn’t look like any of those shoppers, at Bean or at many of the other stores.
And the stores themselves: must they be so ginormous? Cabela’s alone must take up such a huge chunk of acreage that many of the animals the place claims to love and protect were likely put out of their homes. The parking lot alone is the size of a huge meadow. Bean wasn’t a store of that scale, but still…
I wonder what has become of all the real outdoor people. I know Orvis and Bass Pro and the like have been appealing to the upper crust of sportsmen for many years, but it feels like a wave of falsification is taking place in this world that I hold dear. The Great Outdoors is great—it doesn’t need to be billed as an amusement park so that every yuppie within driving range can visit it, be impressed, and mark it off their list of “to-do’s in this lifetime.” I am sad that even the natural realm has become yet another mark of materialism in our messed-up world.
Yes, the stores are interesting and amazing—but not nearly as much so as the real thing. The shopping for gadgets and garments shouldn’t be the experience; the outdoor experience itself should be the experience. Perhaps someday, if we keep building these monstrosities, the shopping experience will be the only one that remains.