Best known for its hunting boots, which according to a recent report in the Associated Press have ousted Uggs and Crocs as the must-have footwear on college campuses, 100-year-old L.L.Bean has begun hitting the books, hard. The family-owned retailer, which reported net sales of $1.44 billion in 2010, has long had a book department at its flagship store in Freeport, Maine, which founder Leon Leonwood Bean opened in 1917. And it carries maps, road atlases, and hiking guides at its nearly 20 retail stores outside of Maine. Now, as part of its anniversary celebration, Bean is heavily promoting three tie-in books on the llbean.com Web site and in its print catalogues, even pricing the books competitively with Amazon.
While books may not be a significant piece of Bean’s business, book publishers with New England–related titles value the retailer as one of their largest customers. “They look for Maine-related and hunting-and-fishing-related books, which is good,” says Dean Lunt, publisher of Islandport Press in nearby Yarmouth, who has done especially well with children’s books by Dahlov Ipcar and the Bert and I humor book and CD. “You’re not competing with bestsellers like Stephen King or Steve Jobs on the shelf. L.L.Bean is tremendous to work with as a small publisher. Over the years they’ve listened to us—they really couldn’t be nicer.” Besides selling its own books to Bean, Islandport repacks books from other small presses to meet the retailer’s stringent shipping requirements.
Down East Enterprises in Camden also has a good relationship with its neighbor. Its Down East Books imprint is copublishing an updated edition of company founder L.L.’s 1942 book Hunting, Fishing & Camping with Bean later this month, and Down East magazine will run a special on the centennial in April. “They’re one of our better customers within the state of Maine,” says v-p, group publisher John Viehman. “Our authors go there dozens of times a year. The store in Freeport is a very attractive venue to get out in front of the public.”
Books, like the other items Bean stocks, benefit from the more than three million visitors a year that shop at the Freeport store, which is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The bookstore is located downstairs next to the Coffee by Design cafe. Kids’ books, the retailer’s top-selling book category, according to Danielle Hanson, retail merchandiser in the home section, are also displayed in the children’s department with plush, toys, and games. Cookbooks and coffee-table books are featured in home; maps and guides can be found in hunting and fishing, and camping.
Like all booksellers, Bean relies on author signings—roughly 35 to 40 a year—to boost sales. But there the similarity ends. While most bookstores use signings as a draw in slow periods, Bean plans its autographings for times when traffic is greatest: the summer tourist season and the holidays. Hanson regards a signing as successful, she says, “if we generate activity, increased traffic, and awareness of the book area. Of course the bottom line is sales.”
Even though Hanson acknowledges that Bean is not immune to the encroachment of e-books, the retailer remains committed to old-fashioned books. “As New Englanders it’s a heritage piece from our brand,” says Hanson. She views books as an opportunity for visitors to take a piece of Acadia National Park or Maine cooking home. The bookstore also fits with the company’s commitment to education and literacy.
As part of its yearlong centennial celebration, several titles are playing an especially important role, perhaps the biggest since 1981, when Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook came out. It boosted company sales 42% after labeling Bean “nothing less than Prep Mecca.” Later this week Bean will publish its first book, Jim Gorman’s Guaranteed to Last: L.L. Bean’s Century of Outfitting America (Jan. 18, $29.95), which will launch with a 60,000-copy first printing and is being distributed by Perseus. Bean’s archives, both photos and customer letters, served as a source of inspiration for the coffee-table book, according to creative director Jenna Klein Jonsson. Packaged by Melcher Media, Guaranteed to Last, which takes its title from the Bean credo, is meant to reflect the brand, from the cover made with canvas to mirror Bean’s Boat & Tote bags to a real Bean’s tag sewn on the front. Bean is selling it for $19.12, the year the company was founded. In addition, says Jonsson, the book will get “nice real estate” at all of the company’s retail stores.
Leon Gorman’s 2006 book on his grandfather, L.L.Bean (Harvard Business Review) is already capitalizing on that. To date, it has sold 60,000 copies in hardcover and is currently in its third printing. As for Down East’s updated Hunting, Fishing & Camping, Bean will distribute it to its channel, while Down East’s distributor NBN will sell it to the trade.