Insider's Guide to Spas
LL Bean Signature


In the Bag: My Longtime Obsession

Mary Bemis

What to pack for a spa trip never stumped me—it’s choosing the right bag that’s tricky.

I’ve been obsessed with bags since I was a kid who harbored Huckleberry Finn-like hobo fantasies of wrapping up all my earthly goods in a big bandana, tying it all together, attaching it to a stick, and hitting the road for trails unknown.  (Later, I would learn how to tie that same bandana into a halter top, but that’s another story.)

The challenge, at the tender age of seven or so, was exactly how much of my beloved possessions I could actually fit into a hobo’s bag.  In addition to select books and stuffed animals, I would need clothing and clean underwear, of course, a few bars of soap, and some food.  I practiced wrapping and unwrapping all manner and sizes of bundles. Perfecting the art of the bundle took up so much of my time, that I never did actually hit the road.

The hobo bag, as I’ve come to learn, was actually referred to as a “bindle”—a stick with a cloth or blanket tied around one of the ends for easy carrying over one’s shoulder.  The first actual hobo bag to be sold can be traced back to 1936, and was called a “gilda hobo bag” that sold for 35 cents.

Today, many decades later, the challenge of properly stuffing a bag has not abated. I remain obsessed with bags—from cosmetic to toiletry to those eco-friendly grocery bags that I wad up and stuff into my tote of the day (and color-coordinate to my outfit, I admit).

I recently took a bag tally, and this is what I came up with:

•17 tote bags

•20 cosmetic and toiletry cases

•10 eco-friendly totes

This excludes my collection of beautiful over-sized leather handbags and Longchamp duffle bags (the latter, a sub-obsession of this obsession).

Why so many bags? I really couldn’t tell you. My ex used to tell me that my obsession hid the fear harbored by many New York women of becoming a bag lady or, God forbid, an “old bag.” The more bags I owned, the less the fear.

Back then, I could have used an entire closet just for my bag collection. But I digress.

I love my tote bags. They are the Mama bag to the Teen and Baby bags. The way I use my bags is akin to those Russian nesting dolls. First, the Mama bag into which goes my laptop, mini umbrella, iPhone, small Moleskine notepad, favorite writing pen, and sunglasses.

This is followed by the Teen bag, a mid-size zip-top bag that holds my wallet/ID, credit cards, compact mirror, and reading glasses. When I’m not traveling, I include a small elegant penknife from France that my sister gave me. You never know when you may need a good penknife.

Next comes a Baby bag, usually a small cosmetic bag, which is also a zip-top and made from mesh for easy reference.  And there’s typically one of those eco-friendly tote bags made from a recycled nylon-like material that I toss in…just in case.

Why can you never have enough bags? a male friend once asked me.  I don’t know. Why do you have more baseball caps than there are teams? I replied.

I color coordinate all of my bags. My favorite large tote bags that I rotate are: black leather; chocolate brown leather; and the Heritage Tote, a great big mustardy suede bag from LL Bean Signature (shown above in this season’s blue).

My smaller bags that go within these are brown and turquoise mesh bags in different sizes. Then there are my orange, black, and beige cosmetic bags from Longchamp that are great for doubling as evening bags when traveling. Not to mention the cheerful Asian-inspired print bags in pencil-case shapes and small zip-tops made from organic cotton from Apple & Bee.

Traveling is a slightly different story. I never check bags, so the importance of what goes into my first carry-on is paramount. I believe that I have it down to a science—the security guards at check-in would think otherwise, as my nesting bags have, on many occasion, been unceremoniously dumped. “Where does it end?” asked one very nice but very frustrated security man recently. “You’ve got bags within bags within bags!”

The bag I travel with most often is a large chocolate-brown tote bag from Longchamp. I love it for many reasons, the first being that it’s expandable for those “just-in-case” moments. I refer to this particular bag as “The Anvil,” for I often overstuff it and it is heavy. My left shoulder actually has a small indent from years of carrying a perfectly stocked but much-too-heavy bag.

Inside the trusted Anvil goes one of my aforementioned leather totes. In the tote goes the aforementioned items, minus the penknife, plus small baggies of nuts and lemon slices. There is also an extra Teen mesh bag that holds my small electronics.  And of course, there’s the small jewelry bag that I cannot do without.

Why can you never have enough bags? a male friend once asked me.  I don’t know. Why do you have more baseball caps than there are teams? I replied.

But as it turns out, I do have enough bags, and as hard as it is to sometimes turn away from a colorful new one that calls—I do just that.

And in the end, I did hit the road—minus my possessions. Not so long ago, I moved from New York City to the wilds of Southern Oregon. Before I left, I gathered enough of my beloved bags to fill an extra-large plastic garbage bag  (no, I don’t collect those) and donated them, along with the majority of my possessions, to an AIDS charity.

I have visions of my favorite bags happily filled with farmer’s market bounty and the beloved items of those whose closets have the space for just one more bag.


Mary Bemis

Mary Bemis

Mary Bemis is editorial director of She is an award-winning spa journalist, honored with Folio's Top Women in Media Award, and the distinguished ISPA Dedicated Contributor Award. In 1997, she launched American Spa magazine, and in 2007, Mary co-founded Organic Spa magazine. A pioneer in the sustainable spa and beauty worlds, Mary is co-curator of Cosmoprof North America's Discover Green Pavilion. She sits on the board of Wellness Warrior, is a Global Wellness Day Advisor and a co-founder of the Washington Spa Alliance.