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L. L. Bean comes through

IN a world swirling with change, we have just received for our annual summer reading that reassuring symbol of security and continuity, the L. L. Bean fall catalog. It is doubly welcome this year, for our household has recently had a couple of bad jolts: A number of our favorite trading houses are going out of business or changing hands, and a couple of mail-order catalogs we've known over the years will no longer be issued. Even more disorienting has been the monstrosity just perpetrated by the New England Telephone Company on the cover of our new phone directory. For years, the Cape Cod edition has been published with a rustic New England photo on the cover. T his year the phone book has been redone; the rustic picture has been replaced by a surrealistic design of mangled reds, greens, and oranges.

There has been a fine pother about all this. Quite a few local columns have appeared, none of them complimentary. There has been a slew of letters to the newspapers crackling with that outraged ire of which New Englanders are capable when longtime institutions are under attack.

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And so it has been reassuring to get the familiar catalog in the mail from Freeport, Maine, and to learn that nothing is changing in the world of L. L. Bean.

It is full once again of the things that I will probably never buy, but which conjure up pictures of simple woodsmen, warm wool plaid against their chests, out with their dogs in the forest, beyond reach of recorded telephone messages, computer printouts, and music they don't like with lyrics they can't stand.

Indeed, the cover shows just such a woodsman in the background, his dog dominating the autumnal foreground. The dog is a Brittany spaniel, said by L. L. Bean to be ``pointing for woodcock.'' You can't see the woodcock, and the dog may be faking it, hoping to get this nonsense over quickly and get back to the warm fire. But the camaraderie between man and dog gives the reader a satisfying feeling.

All the well-known items are in the catalog -- pages and pages of boots, and dozens and dozens of parkas and Maine flannel shirts and corduroy trousers. The instructions for ordering remain common-sensical: For footwear, ``enclose outline of bare foot. Hold pencil straight up when tracing foot.'' Also, ``advise type of stockings (light, heavy, etc.) you plan to wear.'' For hats and caps, measure in inches ``around the largest part of the head with tape above brow ridges.'' It's important to get that tap e above those brow ridges.

There is an improved parka fabric that has been tested for more than double the abrasion resistance of lesser parkas. It was tested on a special abrasion-creating machine at 1,000 revolutions, and there is a color picture of the technician actually being abrasive.

Lots of L. L. Bean's clothing and sleeping bags are filled with prime-quality goose down. To the casual observer, goose down is goose down. But L. L. Bean's down is ``tested continuously,'' hand-separated in an eight-hour process, then weighed and checked under magnification to ensure that it is high-quality down from high-quality geese.

The next step is testing for ``fill power,'' which measures the ability of the down to ``loft and trap air.'' L. L. Bean has serious standards. A one-ounce sample of goose down must ``loft to at least 550 cu. in.'' Presumably down that doesn't loft right is tossed out, and the family of geese from which it came is on L. L. Bean's black list.

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The company also has a black sheep, the black Welsh mountain sheep, whose wool is used, unbleached and undyed, to make sweaters. The black Welsh mountain sheep, L. L. Bean informs us chattily, is the only all-black sheep in Britain and has been used there for wool ``since the Middle Ages.''

L. L. Bean hasn't been around that long, of course, but in a world where change is inevitable, its quaint durability is soothing.

John Hughes is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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