The Allure of the Mystery Bag

A close up of a package wrapped in brown paper with a sticker on the front saying Mystery Kit 008: A Splash of Colour Fountain Pen Ink Bundle $34.00.

When I was just a young slip of a girl, you used to be able to get grab bags of goodies at the corner store. They contained not-quite-stale candy: Chocolate almost at the expiry date, gumdrops decidedly more gummy than they should have been for proper sale, gumballs that had hardened enough to be hazardous to your jaw muscles and young milk teeth. But they were pretty inexpensive – well within the budget of my weekly allowance. But even when I’d already burned though my weekly allowance, I would beg–BEG!– for anything that came in a non-descript paper pennycandy bag.

And it wasn’t just candy. I went through a phase where you could get a bag full of last-season’s hair accessories and seasonal costume jewelry for $5.00. In my barely pre-teen years, armed with student bus tickets on a Saturday afternoon, my friends and I would venture to the mall. I could have an Orange Julius and still have enough left over for a Mystery Bag from Claire’s.  I had more pairs of sunglasses that I couldn’t use (I wear prescription lenses) and spangle-y claw clips and barrettes than any girl should – even in the halcyon days of the 1980’s.

Fast forward a few decades and there was the yearly sale at the Cheese Factory gift shop. There were two sizes of boxes – the $10 and the $20 – and they were full of all kinds of strange and wonderful things. When I added up the value on the price stickers on the contents of my boxes, it was always between $50-75. Totally worth it, right? It was an especially wondrous thing because at that point in my life, my family did this Secret Santa event where we all had to spend $15 (plus tax) and fill the stockings (handmade by my grandmother). So after I pulled out the splendid green hors d’oeuvres  plates (still in rotation!) and novelty tea-infuser and other useful-to-me things, I could use the Asparagus Steamer pot and woven placemats and olive tongs to fill my stocking. Very practical! 

And as it turns out, you don’t outgrow the intense seductive lure of the grab bag and the mystery pack. A few years back, a trip to Phidon (my favourite stationary and origin of my collection of fountain pens) revealed little brown paper bags with 5 ml vials of different ink colours and brands to try. They were themed – Cup of Tea, Tie-dye, spring fling – and I got to try several great colours, and mad-scientist a few together to create colours I liked better than boring old black or red. If you’re going to write with a fabulous set of fountain pens, you’re not going to use pedestrian colours, amirite?

But I digress.

My son is now moved out of my house to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces, but when he returns home, he likes to visit Phidon. So it surprises me not in the least that last weekend, when we made our pilgrimage, I couldn’t leave the store without gleefully digging into the basket full of mystery kits on display. There were a few kinds of different stationery kits – the Fountain Pen Ink Bundle, the Fountain Pen kit, The Art of Lettering caligraphy and creative lettering supplies kit, the Snail Mail Forever kit… What’s a girl with considerably more disposable income to do?
I mean, it was totally to support local businesses. It had nothing to do with me. I’m just supporting the local economy like a good citizen…

A good citizen with a Mystery Kit 008: A Splash of Colour (a fountain pen ink bundle)! I’ve had this package sitting on my desk for a week, unopened. I figure that this is a good treat for future-me when I need a balm for a day full of suck. But I spent some time every day this week turning the kit over in my hands… feeling the vials and boxes contained in the brown paper wrapping and wondering what delights await.

My gentleman associate chose a kit too. His had a Fountain pen and some ink cartridges, a journal, some washi tape, and a really great Red Wine coloured Kokuyo Pasta Marker Pen – which I was way more excited about than he was. And this wasn’t even our first time at this rodeo – a few months ago, when my GA, my son and I went to Phidon, we each pulled a mystery kit with a notepad or journal, a TWSBI fountan pen, a bottle of ink, and some stickers. We have no regrets. I’d fall on that sword again.

You know, to support local business. It’s totally not about me at all.

I was thinking, as I’m pining for another mystery kit before I even open the one I have, how we get here. There’s the squirt of dopamine that a treat provides. There’s the joy that new ink brings to my workday – my go-to colours, unless something sways me, are a sparkley grey and a coral orange. But there’s also the extra bonus of surprise. It feels, sometimes, like as you grow up and set about adulting every day, you just trudge from one known to another. Birth-school-work-death. Wake-work-swim-sleep. Predictable days in predictable weeks in predictable months. But mystery packs – oh, mystery packs -are a surprise. A gift from you to you, with only a vague knowledge of what you’ve bought. It’s a surprise that isn’t going to blindside you – it’s not going to be something unpleasant and anxiety-making. The worst thing is that I open my ink kit and realize that I don’t love the bottles and cartridges contained therein.

And even then, the emotional workflow means I win either way:  either I like the colours, or I get to mix up new colours to meet my purposes.

But for now, future me is grateful for the fun distraction when I need a bit of a pick-me-up. On the one hand I’ve been thinking about the addage to not wait – wear the fancy perfume, burn the special candles; drink the wine, eat the cookie… don’t wait. But on the other, I’m glad that the week hasn’t provided a sufficient struggle that I felt that I needed the mystery kit to help me pull out of a tailspin. I will certainly enjoy the contents of my mystery kit. I just will enjoy them more when I need a kindness and a treat.

So, friends, if you can choose to be anything this week, choose to be kind to yourself.

 Extra Credit:

Frontiers of Psychology: The effect of blind box product uncertainty on consumers’ purchase intention

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