Behind the scenes: The Benji Box

by Stine Fantoft Berg in December 2015
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One-and-a-half years in, the Latvian magazine Benji Knewman has won fans across the globe with its unique stories and idiosyncratic charm.

But what do you do when people want to share more than just words? That’s the question editor Agnese Kleina asked herself when she was offered a 70-year-old treasure dating back to the Soviet re-occupation of Latvia in 1944. Thinking fast and mixing old with new, she created the first ever Benji Box.


What’s the story behind this first Benji Box?
Well, I’ve been thinking about making some sort of box ever since we launched our web shop. Benji Knewman the magazine is a result of Benji’s travels; the people he meets, and the stories he’s told. But what if people want to share more than words? That’s what The Benji Box box is for.

The story and contents of this box, Writer’s Block, literally fell from the sky – there’s no way I could have planned anything like this. It all started when I got a message from my former colleague Janis asking if I knew any artists who were interested in vintage paper stock. I immediately thought “this is interesting” and asked him to tell me more.

Some years ago, Janis had moved into a small garden house that had belonged to his family for generations. As he was refurbishing and tearing down a wall inside, he discovered that one of the walls was thicker than the others. He examined it closer and found a secret compartment filled with paper, pencils and other types of stationery, most of it in perfect condition.


Janis later found out that the stationery belonged to his great grandfather, Hermanis Upens, who had opened a stationery shop in the centre of Riga at the age of 26. In the summer of 1944, the Soviet army was occupying Riga for the second time during the Second World War, and with their arrival all privately held property would be confiscated.

Luckily, Hermanis was tipped off that they were on their way and he decided to give away all of his property – by doing that, the Upens family managed to save themselves from being deported to the Gulag labour camps in Siberia, which is where most business owners were forcefully relocated to by Soviet authorities.

However, before giving up his business, Hermanis managed to hide some of his stock in several places, including the basement of the store building, and his summer cabin. Most of the stock was destroyed in the late 1940s by an accidental fire in the basement, but the rest was found by Janis.


That’s such an incredible story! You’ve always said that Benji Knewman is partly about telling the Latvian story to an international audience. With this box you’re really taking that to a whole new level.
Hermanis’ story could easily go in the magazine, but we’re turning it into something bigger – something you can touch and use and which is also telling a unique story of Latvia. It’s just mind-blowing to think that what I’m now holding in my hands was hidden away by Hermanis himself 70 years ago. It’s like a time capsule – you’re touching lives you never would have touched otherwise.

You’ve told me before that you’re fascinated by time capsules
I am! I’m always imagining the people who made them. We’ll never know why they made them or why they put those exact things in them. But I guess one motivation is that you don’t want to be forgotten, and if you think about it, that has something in common with making magazines. Digital files are very temporary in the sense they could disappear or become unreadable just like that. Printed matter on the other hand has the potential to stay intact for hundreds of years.


So what are the contents of the Writer’s Block box?
From the 70-year-old stationery Janis found, each box includes some A3 vintage bookkeeper’s paper, an A4 lined, watermarked letter-paper pad, cigarette rolling paper that could be used as gift wrap, an A6 gridded notepad, a couple of sheets of watercolour paper and some nice-looking blotting paper.

We’ve also included a few contemporary items: an automatic pencil, a piece of cotton cord and a pair of envelopes from design stationery store Manilla in Riga. And finally, there’s a letter from Benji with Hermanis’ story and some photographs printed on it.


What’s the next step? Have you started planning the next box, and will they come out on a set frequency?
I have started planning the next box and have been in touch with some potential contributors. But we won’t make a box just for the sake of it – they’ll be out when they’re ready. One of the ‘mantras’ of Benji Knewman is ‘All is fine’, and the next box will be related to that somehow.

This first box is the result of an amazing story just falling into my lap – there are many things in life you can’t plan, and that’s also what Benji Knewman is about.

The first Benji Box, Writer’s Block, is available from Benji Knewman’s shop for €37.

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