L.L. Bean opened in Charlottesville a few weeks ago, which may be as much of a cultural milestone as the arrival of a Trader Joe’s.
The new store at the Shops at Stonefield arrives at a time when the outdoor business is in a state of upheaval on the north end of Charlottesville. Woodbrook Sports & Pro Shop, a family-owned gun and hunting store, recently closed due to rising rent and what seemed like increasing competition from Dick’s Sporting Goods and Gander Mountain. Then Dick’s Sporting Goods announced its intention to close its 29 North location (a Dick’s remains at 5th Street Station on the south end of town). And Gander Mountain declared bankruptcy only a few years after opening its massive outdoor equipment and apparel store. Thus, a vacuum on the north end was created, with Great Outdoor Provision Co. (known for high-quality hiking, camping and climbing gear) holding court a little further south in Barracks Road Shopping Center.
While L.L. Bean still has a whiff of the original hunting and fishing supplier that began in 1912 in Freeport, Maine, it isn’t going to scratch the outdoor itch for everyone. Its hunting and fishing supplies are only available online and are not offered in the new Charlottesville store. But it is still a place where you can pick up a decent sleeping bag or day pack if you don’t need a wide selection, or a pair of boots.
“One thing that we will never lose sight of, and is part of our DNA, is the outdoors,” says Mac McKeever, spokesman for L.L. Bean. “We started as an outdoor company. We started as a hunting and fishing company with the iconic Maine hunting boot. …That is our soul and we will never lose sight of that.”
While L.L. Bean still has a whiff of the hunting and fishing supplier that began in 1912 in Freeport, Maine, it isn’t quite going to scratch the outdoor itch for everyone.
At the store’s grand opening, McKeever’s point was illustrated by an enormous motorized L.L. Bean boot that was parked out front for the occasion. Imagine the Oscar Mayer Weinermobile, only less roomy inside and with nothing to eat. Also, it’s a boot.
The massively popular boots are available in the store, as is a lot of other apparel. But rather than outfitting serious wilderness expeditions, this store primarily sells clothing and accessories for people who may want to give off an outdoorsy vibe on their way to class. You can’t find a fishing rod or an ice axe, but there are non-breakable plastic wine glasses, exactly four propane canisters and a few stand-up paddle boards. There’s even trail rations, including Backpacker’s Pantry dehydrated pad Thai.
For those who would like to move beyond outdoor style and toward adventure, the new Bean store still has something to offer.
“We have expanded our outdoor programming through outdoor discovery schools,” McKeever says. “One thing that differentiates this store from other stores is that we sell the outdoor apparel but we also do demonstrations and clinics, some paid and some for free to teach people how to do it.”
Planned classes include fly-tying, paddleboarding 101 and setting up hiking boots for maximum comfort.
“So on Meetup, we’ll say, ‘Meet us at this trailhead at this time and this date and we’ll take you on a hike,’” says McKeever. “One of the reasons we chose this area is that people here not only have a great affinity for the outdoors, but there’s lots and lots of stuff to do in the outdoors. Tons of hiking, tons of biking trails.”
He is right about that. In and within an hour of Charlottesville, locals can fish for catfish, bass or eels, go flatwater and whitewater canoeing and kayaking, hunt everything from squirrels to black bear, go hang gliding, rock climbing, hiking or camping, or just sit in a park wearing fancy boots and taking selfies.
L.L. Bean’s history began with mail-order sales of the nearly indestructible boots, which are still handmade in Maine.
“We don’t chase trends,” says McKeever. “They have this interesting way of finding us. With the Bean boots they are now really popular with college students. They’ve always been popular with hunters and loggers and people who work outside because they keep your feet warm and dry and they’re tougher than a tire. But they’ve realized this huge crossover appeal lately with college students and people in the fashion world.”