They’ve sat in a dark, dusty corner for well over a decade – a pair of genuine L.L. Bean “duck boots,” circa 1989, their soles worn, their leather tops weathered, their metal eyelets encrusted with a patina of ancient-copper green.

I can’t remember the year I stopped wearing them. But I do remember how the seams above the heels let go and, rather than toss them out, I tried to temporarily keep the slush out with a few strategically placed strips of duct tape.

Didn’t work.

“Bring them back!” countless people – usually summertime visitors with no moral compass – have urged me over the years whenever I’ve trotted them out to show off my ingenuity. “They’ll give you a new pair, no questions asked!”

Deep down, I always suspected they were right.

But deeper down, I was taught by nuns. Meaning I have an intimate relationship with guilt.

“Wow. You got some good use out of those,” said Shawn Sullivan, L.L. Bean’s district manager, as I extracted my boots, duct tape and all, from a flimsy Hannaford shopping bag Friday morning. “We might want to call the archives on those.”

I’d come to the company’s flagship store in Freeport not to weasel my way into new footwear, but to answer a question that popped into my head upon hearing that L.L. Bean’s universally acclaimed returns policy is no longer.

From now on, rather than replace any and all returns with a new version of the old product or, if that’s impossible, a gift card, the world-famous outfitter will draw the line at 12 months after the purchase date or a demonstrable manufacturing defect. Regular wear and tear, henceforth, is your problem.

The reason, in this age of unabashed entitlement, is painfully predictable: Too many moochers.

Or, as company president and CEO Stephen Smith described them to the Portland Press Herald, “a small but growing group of customers who are interpreting the guarantee as a lifetime product replacement program, and that was never its intent.”

Like I said, moochers.

So, back to my question: How have the good people who staff L.L. Bean’s expansive returns counter managed to keep their sanity, not to mention their smiles, all these years?

Do they get special training in how not to blow their top when – true story – a guy walks over from the nearby café and says he wants to return his half-eaten cookie? (Turns out the café is run by an independent contractor, so the cookie was technically not an L.L. Bean product. Plus, the guy was a bonehead.)

“The training is you’re in this green shirt,” replied Jewels Gordon, a customer services manager who oversees the returns crew. “You’re 100 percent customer-focused to do what’s right for the person in front of you and you do it with a smile. And that’s what we do, day in and day out.”

God bless her. Put me behind that counter and I guarantee I wouldn’t make it to lunch break without telling some grifter to cut out the whining and take a hike.

Gordon remembers the time, shortly after she started at L.L. Bean in 2013, that a customer came in holding only the leg of chair.

The problem?

“It was defective,” Gordon replied.

The solution?

“Based on what the customer said, in that particular time frame, we did take care of the customer,” she said.

So, the defect was … the rest of the chair had disappeared?

“Well, in that case, yes.”

Dawn Segars, a customer service representative who has worked in returns for 17 years, recalls the day a customer handed her an empty sunglasses case.

“The sunglasses were in the lake,” she said.

Was it at least an L.L. Bean sunglasses case?

“It was.”

Score!

The return scammers range from the delusional, who consider their purchase of wool socks a lifetime contract, to the downright deceptive, who find an L.L. Bean shirt at a thrift outlet or yard sale and have no qualms about traipsing up to Freeport and demanding compensation with no proof of purchase whatsoever.

It’s a far cry from 106 years ago, when the legendary Leon Leonwood Bean sold his first 100 pairs of hunting boots and 90 came back because the bottoms and tops had separated. He refunded every disgruntled customer and set about making a better boot.

Even now, we should note, most patrons who step up to the returns counter are honest, trustworthy folk.

But over the past five years, the moochers have doubled in number, costing the store $250 million in returns classified as “destroy quality.” Also known as “you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“The majority of people are good. The hearts of people are good. And they have the best intentions,” Gordon said. “And then there is a bit of a culture that was created of folks who misunderstood and have carried that on for generations and needed to have some education and to learn what L.L. really wanted.”

What old L.L. wanted was a solid base of loyal, satisfied customers. What his descendants got, in addition to that, was a flock of vultures who suffer no ethical pangs with the notion that L.L. Bean’s loss is their gain.

Walking into the store with my old boots, I avoided making eye contact with other shoppers for fear they’d look inside my supermarket bag and assume I was trying to pull a fast one.

Still, I was curious. Under the old policy, I asked Sullivan, the district manager, would I have received brand new boots?

“Yes,” he said without hesitation.

Not that I would have needed them. Where I saw a pair of boots well past their prime, Sullivan saw pure gold.

“A lot of people are working really hard to get to where you got to with this leather. This is desirable,” he said, admiring the supple uppers. “We can re-sole those for $38.”

Call it a win-win-win.

My conscience stays clear, L.L. Bean stays solvent and, for just 38 bucks, I remain a proud owner of the most iconic retail item ever sold in the great state of Maine.

Not counting duct tape.

Bill Nemitz can be contacted at:

[email protected]

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