Freeport, Maine: Shopping and Exploring

L.L. Bean: 4:48 a.m. It’s nearly 5 a.m. and you’re standing at the gateway to Maine’s North Woods. Well, actually you’re wandering through the hunting and fishing annex of the vast L.L. Bean retail empire in Freeport, joined by bleary-eyed, coffee-fueled hunters […]

By Wayne Curtis

Jun 05 2007

L.L. Bean: 4:48 a.m.

It’s nearly 5 a.m. and you’re standing at the gateway to Maine’s North Woods.

Well, actually you’re wandering through the hunting and fishing annex of the vast L.L. Bean retail empire in Freeport, joined by bleary-eyed, coffee-fueled hunters who have been driving all night from Connecticut and New York and have stopped by to pick up last-minute items before setting off into the moose-thick woods.

Freeport is one of the great shopping destinations of New England, a small town where name-brand stores go for vacation, settling in to small Cape Cod-, Colonial-, and Federal-style homes to escape the stress of the big city. The small-town setting evidently puts them in a expansive mood, for they offer up fine deals on their merchandise. During peak shopping season — a rainy afternoon in August, or leading up to the December holidays — parking is more scarce here than at your local mall on Christmas Eve.

But unlike a mall, Freeport is decidedly not a single organism. It’s a collection of small, self-contained universes. And in the course of 24 hours, you can visit a great many of them — such as the fragment of the North Woods, courtesy of L.L. Bean, complete with artificial trout pond.

Being a gateway to Maine’s outdoors is the historic source of Freeport’s current look. In fact, Leon Leonwood Bean built this town on a pair of waterproof hunting boots. In 1912, he started selling Maine Hunting Shoes by mail and from the basement of his brother’s apparel shop here. Made with rubberized lower sections wedded to a flexible leather upper, they allowed hunters to slosh around in Maine’s famous boggy land while keeping their feet dry.

Bean started selling other items of interest to outdoorsmen. He noticed that hunters kept notoriously odd hours, so, making a commitment to customer service that continues to this day, he kept the store open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When you enter the big main store at L.L. Bean (there are also three satellite shops nearby), notice that the doors have neither latches nor locks. It still never closes.

Today L.L. Bean is perhaps best known for its clothing, but it continues to offer a good selection of tents, camp stoves, GPS systems, rain gear, and outdoor geegaws that make you marvel that you ever did without. (Who knew that water bottles came in so many colors and shapes?)

Not surprisingly, other shops catering to outdoors people have cropped up nearby. DeLorme, a mapping company that started in Freeport and is now headquartered just down the road in Yarmouth, launched its ubiquitous 50-state atlas series when it realized hunters and fishermen needed a way to find their way around obscure logging roads. At Lincoln Canoes & Kayaks just south of town, you can build a small fleet perfect for exploring the rivers and lakes of the state, first trying out the boats on the tiny pond behind the shop.

Of course, you’ll have to wait until a little later in the morning for that. Things are still pretty dark everywhere except at L.L. Bean at 5 a.m.

Anne Klein: 10:12 a.m.

A field guide to shoppers in Freeport includes three chief species. There are the Hit and Run shoppers, like the hunters who need only tent stakes and three-legged folding camp stools and want to be back on the highway within 15 minutes, tops. Then comes their opposite, the Snackers, who move with a somnambulant shuffle down the sidewalk with ice cream cones or pastries in hand. They pause in front of each shop, listening for a small whisper that might lure them in to sniff the wares.

And then there are the Sharks, who know precisely what they want. These are type A people whose prey is bargains with a capital B. They know what the prices are on Madison Avenue in New York, they know how to tell if it’s an overstock of the original or a cheaper, outlet-branded knockoff sharing a label. They must always keep moving, and they are undistracted by chum.

Guided by some internal radar, they move up and down the racks of clothing with a choppy gait, like that mother and grown daughter team over there, dressed nearly alike. They move briskly, then divide up at the racks in Anne Klein, walking down either side and reporting on their findings with a running commentary. Just down the block at Polo Ralph Lauren, three people shop this morning as they chat on Bluetooth cell phone headsets (“We’re in Saco!” one says loudly).

Downtown Freeport has the feel of a classic small-town main street — a narrow commercial corridor of eclectic and trim architecture, some historic, some not, that divides in a gentle Y near the middle of town. (That’s a footprint from the earliest settlement; coastal villages often had such intersections to allow 100-foot masts to be brought down from the woods, then backed out to the landing for outbound shipping).

Yet it’s a village that seems somehow askew: Instead of hardware stores and used-book stores, it’s filled with celebrity brand shops like Brooks Brothers, The North Face, Gap, and Banana Republic, all occupying small shops and homes (Abercrombie & Fitch is in the old 1905 Carnegie library, and even McDonald’s is in a tidy center-chimney Georgian).

But tucked among them — and often missed by the Sharks — are worthy local outlets and shops. At Abacus, an arts gallery with four locations in Maine, you ascend simple granite steps into a plain home. But once inside, you’re awash in splashy colors and swingy jazz. It’s the perfect antidote to a November monochrome. There’s furniture and jewelry, bright prints, lustrous woodwork, and a quirky collection of three-dimensional photos crafted by Scott Matyjaszek.

Farther down Route 1, you’ll find other shops missed by many, including Weathervanes of Maine, another business with a handful of New England locations. The second generation of McElvains are crafting wonderful adaptations and replicas of classic weathervanes — geese, eagles, baseball players, sailing ships, and a heron launching into flight.

South Freeport Town Wharf: 2:55 p.m.

It’s nearly 3 p.m., and the South Freeport waterfront is cool and overcast; the clouds are spitting rain. Lobster boats are coming and going with a throaty growl, piloted by men in yellow rain jackets who offer small explosions of color in the pigeon-gray landscape. The popular Harraseeket Lunch & Lobster — bustling in summer, buttoned up after mid-October, and located just across from a shaggy, shingled building at the boatyard — seems to list against the slight breeze.

If Freeport’s downtown is the main stage for shopping, there’s far more of the town existing behind the curtain. There are some 7,800 residents, most of whom have little connection with the shopping mecca. In fact, Freeport was originally four villages; today’s shopping mecca — once called Freeport Corner — was really the neglected back yard, an inland farming center. Not until the rail line came through in 1849 did Freeport Corner productively link to the outside world. (Like most of Maine, coastal villages were connected chiefly by sea.)

It’s worth exploring that past, winding along the fingers of land that extend out into Casco Bay. The quiet harbors and inlets edged with pines and ghostly late-fall birch trees give this stretch of the coast a look more like the inland lakes than the rugged Maine coast of the calendars.

Take a spin by Wolfe’s Neck Farm, a nonprofit purveyor of high-quality natural meats. Much of the taste is no doubt due to contentedness of the cows, who enjoy sweeping views of northern Casco Bay (the sort of view for which an investment banker in search of a summer home would gladly cut a large check) while cud chewing. The farm no longer sells meat to those who stop by, but do detour to the Bow Street Market on your way back into town, where you’ll find a selection of local meats.

Azure Cafe: 6:17 p.m.

To the surprise of many, Freeport has become, over the past few years, a dining destination. You can explore a range of fare here, from the sudsy cheer of Gritty McDuff’s brewpub to Conundrum’s lavish wine list served in a New York-style bistro. Our choice this evening is Azure Cafe, an oasis of delicate, contemporary Italian fare amid the shopping scene and nearly adjacent to the classic Colonial-style Jameson Tavern — a gulf of decades and miles of attitude in the space of a few dozen yards. Sip a two-rum mojito while perusing the menu, which includes the cafe’s award-winning clam chowder and dishes such as balsamic-glazed pork tenderloin enlivened with fire-roasted corn and a sweet pepper relish.

After dinner, wander down to the regal Harraseeket Inn to soak in some of the rusticity of the Broad Arrow Tavern. Angle for a seat by the fireplace amid Windsor chairs and snowshoes on the wall and order up a dessert and after-dinner drink.

It’s as grand a place to spend an evening as you’ll find in Maine.