James L. Witherell
Witherell, 58-year-old outdoor enthusiast from West Peru, Maine, spent five years writing “L.L. Bean: The Man and His Company.’’ The book details the history of how Leon Leonwood Bean started his company with a boot, which he invented after his feet got wet while he was hunting. The L.L.Bean company, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year, recently named Lexington and Arlington the two “Beanest’’ communities outside of Maine.
Q. What interested you in L.L.Bean?
‘I’ve even heard that people at L.L.Bean are reading [my book], the executives and workers. They’re all reading it to find out about their [company’s] history.’
A. That’s an easy one. I grew up in West Peru, Maine. There’s only one town between West Peru and Freeport, Maine, where L.L.Bean is located. I heard a lot about [Leon Leonwood Bean] growing up. It’s just something that interested me. When someone else is interested in it, they don’t always take it to the same level I did and spend five years writing a book on it. But I found a lot of interesting stories about them. It’s more of a story than a business book.
Q. Was writing it a difficult process?
A. Sometimes, I would go a month or two without working on it, but there were other months when I would work 18 hours a day on it. There’s a lot of research involved. It’s not officially sanctioned by the company, but I had no problem getting information about [Bean] and his company - everything from his childhood to when he made the boot when he was 40. I’m not sure if it qualifies as a biography or a history of the company.
Q. Tell me about your own outdoor hobbies and interests.
A. I really enjoy cycling. A few years ago when I turned 52, I rode my bike from Bethel to Bar Harbor, 200 miles in 11 1/2 hours on my birthday. I’m also a master Maine guide. I can lead parties in hunting or fishing or recreation. Of course I tend more toward the recreation part. . . . It’s really beneficial because I know exactly what he was going through while hunting a hundred years ago.
Q. You wrote another book, “Bike History,’’ before. How did this differ?
A. The bike history book is full of facts, just in chronological order. It’s just interesting things, milestones in technology, famous writers, or incredible feats. That’s kind of set up as a trivia book, but with the L.L. Bean book, I wanted to make it as much of a story, to fill it up with humorous anecdotes. I’ve even heard that people at L.L.Bean are reading it, the executives and workers. They’re all reading it to find out about their [company’s] history.
Q. Did you run into any conflicts with the company while researching and writing?
A. I think [the company] had a situation 25 years ago and someone was going to write a book . . . and I think they tried to stop him from writing it. Then there was a parody in an adult magazine. They sued and it ultimately went to the Supreme Court, but they lost. . . . They’re such a big company and it’s their 100th anniversary, so I think they’re just going to accept that it’s going to happen.
Q. Do you have any favorite stories or anecdotes from Bean’s life?
A. One of my favorites is how, until the early ’60s, the post office was on the bottom floor of the building and [Bean] had his office on the second floor. From spring to fall, the men of Freeport would all stand outside and listen to L.L. Bean talk on the phone to his stock broker. . . . The men would linger and listen and then run home and call their stock brokers. The only catch was this only worked when it was warm and he opened his window. When he had to close his window, the rest of the investors didn’t know what to buy or sell.
Q. Anything you didn’t already know about Bean that you discovered while researching?
A. The thing that probably is the most interesting is their business point of view. When Leon Gorman, L.L. Bean’s grandson, was CEO [he joined in 1960], he wanted to grow the company. But Bean wanted to remain steady instead of trying to modernize the company and their business practices. L.L. Bean famously said, “I get three meals a day and I couldn’t eat a fourth so why would I want to expand?’’
Interview has been condensed and edited. Marian Daniells can be reached at email@example.com.