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Few things are more uncomfortable than cold, wet feet. A hunter in Maine attempted to solve this problem more than a hundred years ago. He invented a distinctive style of rubber and leather boots and ended up launching a retail empire. Today L.L. Bean boots are still popular and not just for hunters. Hipsters want duck boots too. As Murray Carpenter reports, demand is so great this season the company is scrambling to keep up.
MURRAY CARPENTER, BYLINE: Royce Haines is walking through a large, well-lit factory. It's the middle of the night and the place is bustling.
ROYCE HAINES: It's around midnight; almost a quarter to twelve and we're standing here in Brunswick, Maine, on the shop floor where we make Bean boots.
CARPENTER: Haines manages the shop and he says L.L. Bean hired a hundred new employees to meet the demand for its signature boots and added the night shift. He's trying to meet a backlog of nearly 100,000 pairs. Just down the road at L.L. Bean's flagship store in Freeport, there aren't many boots left on the shelves, but some customers are getting lucky.
SHERYL LEE: I have the coveted L.L. Bean brown leather boot that every teenage girl wants for Christmas.
CARPENTER: Sheryl Lee is from Natick, Massachusetts.
LEE: However, I was sent up to get three sizes, two pair for two friends. No sizes for the friends, just for my daughter (laughter) so I feel a little guilty about that.
CARPENTER: Some of the demand is driven by fashion trends, like lumberjack chic. But L.L. Bean's Mac McKeever says the boots have a broader appeal.
MAC MCKEEVER: These books have always been popular with outdoorsmen - traditional outdoorsmen - and hunters and loggers and farmers. But they've seemed to garner favor in the fashion industry as well as with young folks, college campuses, folks from the cities. Obviously, it's a welcome, you know, welcome surge in popularity for us.
CARPENTER: Brendt Stier has been seeing them everywhere at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, where his wife works.
BRENDT STIER: So we were at the Lafayette-Lehigh game, which is the 150th anniversary at Yankee Stadium. And it's the longest-running college rivalry football game in the country. And everyone had Bean boots, so that's why we got them so (laughter).
CARPENTER: Stier, pushing a baby stroller around the store, is wearing his pants down over his new boots. But the younger crowd likes to flaunt them. Women often wear them unlaced over skinny jeans or tights.
HANNAH PERKINS: Everyone's doing the whole wool-sock-out-of-the-Bean-boot thing, whether it's with jeans or leggings (laughter) yeah.
CARPENTER: Hannah Perkins, a Mainer who's been wearing the boots for years, says they're now very popular with her classmates at Susquehanna University.
PERKINS: Guys do tuck in their pants as well. It's funny. Some guys will wear them outside so only see the tops, but I've seen guys rock the tuck-in-the-pant look too. Maybe not the wool socks, but...
CARPENTER: So it's almost like a show-off-your-boots look.
PERKINS: Oh, absolutely (laughter).
CARPENTER: Back at the factory, the night shift crew is hitting its stride. Maine's once-thriving shoe industry is now mostly gone, but these boots are still made here by hand. The workers cut leather patterns out of a full hide and punch in eyelets for the laces, then triple-stitch the uppers to the rubber bottom. It all takes time and Haines says it will take months to catch up with the orders.
HAINES: A lot of demand out there; back orders are building on us. The pressure's on. We got some boots to make (laughter).
CARPENTER: And those Maine-made boots are not just feeding the U.S. market. It turns out that Bean boots, especially in vibrant colors, are huge in Japan. For NPR News, I'm Murray Carpenter.
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