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Business and Economy

LL Bean Flagship, Freeport Stores Cautiously Reopen Doors

Patty Wight
Maine Public
Shops at Freeport Village Station on Monday.

Today, retail stores in the four Maine counties with community transmission of the coronavirus were allowed to join their counterparts in the rest of the state and reopen. That includes the shopping mecca of Freeport in Cumberland County, which attracts 3 million visitors a year.

One of the primary attractions for Freeport shoppers is, of course, LL Bean. When it shut its doors in mid-March, it marked the first time ever that the store famous for being open round-the-clock had closed for more than 24 hours. But when the flagship store reopened to in-person shoppers Monday morning for the first time in nearly three months, it was greeted by a slow trickle of decidedly loyal customers.

“I think it’s kind of a sign of Maine coming back,” says shopper Virginia Culgin.

Kara Tillotson (left) and Virginia Colgin

Culgin and her daughter Kara Tillotson, both of Brunswick, say they made a point to stop in to support LL Bean, and to see what the shopping experience was like.

“It was surprisingly lovely. The employees are so excited,” Culgin says.

“Yeah, everyone is so friendly,” Tillotson says. “It has an energy, like people are happy to be here.”

LL Bean declined an interview request, but in a written statement the company says that it’s opening under limited hours - 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Signs inside remind people to wear masks and keep a 6-foot distance. And, per state guidelines, the store is limiting the total number of customers inside at a given time, which didn’t seem to be a problem on Monday morning.

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Maine Public
Sherry Buxton

“Basically you’ve got everything to yourself today,” says Sherry Buxton of Windham, who had the sidewalk to herself as she worked her way up to the flagship store after picking up a pair of slippers at the LL Bean outlet.

As a small-business owner herself, Buxton says it’s time to venture out and support local shops.

“I feel more comfortable here than I do in a grocery store with everyone around you,” she says.

Buxton was wearing a mask, as were all of the other shoppers that Maine Public spoke to. Susan Culkins, owner of the Mangy Moose gift shop on Main Street, says she hopes it stays that way.

After spending the past two weeks cleaning and getting ready to open, she’s excited to welcome her first in-store customers — but also a little nervous.

“I would say that we’re all worried, because we’re all such nonconfrontational people. I would say our big worry is people that want to come in without masks on,” she says.

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Maine Public
Ian MacLeod

A few blocks south at Abacus Gallery, manager Ian MacLeod says he also has that in the back of his mind after seeing confrontations on social media in other states. But he says Abacus has done what it can to prepare, and now it’s time to take the plunge.

“It all feels very experimental right now. It doesn’t feel like we’ve got it all figured out this week. But it feels like we’ve kind of got to be here to figure out, what do we do, how does this work now?” he says.

MacLeod says he’s hopeful that people will self-police, so that he can focus on providing a safe but enjoyable experience for customers.

“I’m happy to be back to work, I’m happy to have the door open on the gallery. Usually this music bothers me, because we have a CD changer with five CDs, but I’m like loving this music today. I turned it on this morning, and I was like, ‘Oh baby, I might just turn this up,’” he says.

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Maine Public
Chauncey Erskine

While several Freeport stores cranked up the music for in-store shoppers Monday, others remained closed. The manager of Mexicali Blues, Chauncey Erskine, says the Freeport location will open Wednesday. The store is typically packed with clothing, jewelry and gifts from around the globe, and Erskine has been removing some displays to provide more space.

“People truly come here as a form of therapy. Color therapy, sound therapy. And people come for their incense and tie dye. I think it’s really important to be able to offer that to people right now,” he says.

Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop is also waiting to open as it gets things ready. Reached by phone, CEO Jeff Curtis says his Freeport store will open Thursday. He’s feeling some trepidation, but not about health and safety. He’s been able to do a trial run in his locations in other counties.

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Maine Public
Susan Culkins

“We now have two weeks under our belt in the other three stores and everybody says they feel safe, the customers are comfortable. So that seems to be going well. What isn’t going well is the level of business,” he says.

Curtis says business is 30-40 percent of what it would normally be. And he’s down half a million dollars so far this year. The customer limits are a challenge, he says. The Freeport store is 3,500 square feet and falls within a category that can only allow in five customers at a time.

“Which, to us, actually doesn’t make sense. If five customers are safe in 1,000 square feet, it does seem like a 3,500-square-foot store should be allowed more.

Curtis says it will likely be a difficult summer if those limits aren’t modified, as well as the 14-day quarantine for out-of-state visitors. But as hotels and other shops open, he’s hopeful that business will pick up.