A former L.L. Bean shoplifter confesses his sins.
Photo Credit: Jennifer Baum
The Katahdin Iron Works sweatshirt is the kind of thing a person might wear to bed. It’s for boys to buy and girls to borrow. The outside is 91 percent cotton, and the lining is faux shearling, beige, and soft enough to pass for something made from sheep. There are two pockets in the front, and inside each is a liner made from silky fabric. To slide hands into these pockets is addictive.
The Katahdin Iron Works sweatshirt ($49.50) comes in barley, black, spruce, gray heather, navy, and timber. Navy’s what I’m after. In my wallet are three twenty-dollar bills. I also have two valid credit cards, but I can’t use either of them. In a worst case scenario, my name would flash on the computer screen, the clerk would press a button mounted underneath his register, a security team would arrive, and I would be arrested. At L.L. Bean, I shop as a fugitive.
Fifteen years ago I tried on a Bean’s belt that I wanted to own but not necessarily pay for. I was a kid shopping with his parents in Freeport. I took off the belt and then tried it on again, this time inside a tent in the camping department. With my shirt pulled carefully over my waist, I walked around the store. I looked at snowshoes and survival packs, inspected mountain bikes and boat shoes. For a while I sat on a plaid dog bed and watched customers go by. I met my mother, waiting for me at the trout pond. She asked if there was anything I wanted. No, I said. I was fourteen years old; accepting parental generosity was temporarily on hold, replaced by adolescent disdain. So we walked out of the door.
Outside by the kayaks display, an undercover security officer grabbed my arm and lifted up my shirt. “You didn’t!” Mom said. “How could you?” My defense was at least somewhat true. “I forgot to pay for it. I’m sorry.” I had put the belt out of my mind, stolen it, and then convinced myself I hadn’t.
The L.L. Bean flagship store in Freeport is open twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. No matter what happens in the outside world — New Year’s Eve, presidential inaugurations — there are always Bean employees on duty to assist customers. The building is a mock log cabin that covers 160,000 square feet with wood-paneled atriums, slate flooring, and seats made from tree trunks. A sign on the front door informs that all firearms must be checked upon entering. In the lobby is a trout pond. Next to that is a trout aquarium, full of perfect browns and rainbows.
These days, shopping incognito at Bean’s, I browse with abandon, enjoying the store’s legendary customer service. In the shoe department it’s only a matter of seconds before a clerk asks if there’s anything I’d like to see in my size. “No thanks!” In the windbreaker department the salesman wants to know if I’m finding everything all right. He shows me a pair of jogging pants. “Those are breathable nylon with a mechanized drawstring,” he says. “Good for wet weather?” I ask. “How wet?” he wants to know, asking as if he’d be running through the morning fog along a coastal road were he not selling clothes. He does not try to convince me that I need these pants, he merely wants to know if they are right for me.
As a one-time shoplifter, I’m technically not allowed to enter any L.L. Bean store or facility for as long as I live. I am, however, still allowed to shop via the mail order catalog, and I’m assuming — although my arrest pre-dated the Internet’s widespread use — the Web as well. Like many people in Maine, there are things at Bean’s that I require and that I do not wish to purchase over the phone. Things like long underwear, hats, and gloves. So I pay cash. At home I’ve got a warm-up jacket with reflectors on the sleeves and a checked gingham shirt that I will, on occasion, wear for weeks without washing. My illicit L.L. Bean garments are redemption wear, a way to make myself feel like I am still worthy of wearing Maine’s ultimate brand.
After trying on the Katahdin Iron Works sweatshirt I decide against it — I can’t part with that much cash all at once. So I head to the hunting and fishing department. Mounted on the wall, a javelina smiles at a tuna that’s being chased by a shark. Walking through this store, where I am not supposed to be, I often feel as though all eyes are on me. For a more palatable seven dollars I buy a bag of beef jerky. The clerk asks for my zip code and I happily give it to him. I’m a local. I shop at L.L. Bean. I will drive home, chewing on my beef jerky, and when I want some more, I’ll simply go back.
- By: Peter Zinn