Who are you and your team?
My name is Kjell Betlem and I am the founder of About: Blanks. We make notebooks from old book covers and recycled materials.
Why did you start and when?
The idea of what would later become ‘About: Blanks’ started in 2013. At that time, I was studying at the Willem de Kooning Academie and spent a lot of time in the central library in Rotterdam. One day, I discovered a stack of old books that the library wanted to get rid of for a couple of euros. I have always been fascinated by the look, texture and smell of old book covers, so I walked over to take a look. Most of the books were from the early 1900s. Back then, it was common to not only bind books, but also magazines, newspapers or theater plays for preservation reasons. Therefore, not all of them had a title, but a fairly plane cover design which reminded me of a notebook. That was the moment when I thought: ‘If these books are not read anymore, wouldn’t it be nice to at least give these beautiful covers a new life?’
What did you do?
I bought a few of the old books and started messing around with them. I don’t have a background in bookbinding, so I just watched a lot of YouTube videos. I remember taking the first one to school and showing it to people. I got so many enthusiastic reactions that shortly after the first one, I made another one for a friend of mine, my mom, my aunt etc. That got me thinking: ‘If so many people are enthusiastic about the idea, then maybe I could grow it into a business!’
How did it go?
To be honest, the first one I made didn’t hold for a long time, as I obviously made some mistakes. So, I first focused on the progress of improving the technique. Then, I set up a website and just uploaded some pictures of the books I had already made. Some friends ordered, but I quickly realized that that was not the way to grow the business. The thing is, if you want a new pair of jeans you can just browse the internet, but nobody would search for a notebook made from an old book cover (laughs).
So, what did you do instead?
Well, I just put a few notebooks in my little backpack and walked to Voorlopig, a gift shop at the Nieuwe Binnenweg where I lived at that time. I showed my notebooks to the owner and asked if she was interested in selling them. And guess what: she was! That’s how I had found my first ambassador. I remember how happy I was to immediately sell quite a few at once. Thereafter, I went to more and more stores in Rotterdam, but also other cities in the Netherlands. Before I knew, I found myself starting a business!
Fast forward to today. How many books do you currently sell roundabout?
Last year I sold 10.000. This year the number of purchases doubled, so, 20.000. We have not only been growing in the Netherlands, but also internationally. Sales in the UK are for example going very well.
Wow! Do you still make them on your own?
No. After I had found a couple of stores that would sell my notebooks, I had to admit that it just took me too much time to make them myself, that was just not economical in the long run. As it is important to me to make a positive impact with my business, I decided to work with a social production facility, more specifically, with the ‘Haeghe Groep’ in Den Haag. People that don’t easily find a workplace get employed and will be nurtured in a very safe environment. I still work with them today! From my perspective, sustainability goes beyond reusing and recycling materials, but also means to contribute to an inclusive society.
There must be quite some people involved to make these books.
Yes. They have some machines, but since every cover is unique, we have different notebook sizes, so, there is still a lot of handwork, such as taking out the pages, cutting the new pages to size etc.
We understand you reuse the book cover, but what do you do with the interior?
Currently, most of the book pages get recycled, but we also started making book covers from pages. Just think of all the nice pages in atlases or fairy tales! That’s, however, just a small percentage. I’m still investigating how to make my own paper with the pages we are not using. I had already found a factory here in the Netherlands that made really nice samples. They basically make a soup of old papers which loosens the fibers and then dry and press them into new sheets. Depending on thickness and origin (how much printed paper you use) you normally need some chemicals or mix it with new paper to lighten it up. We just left the old ink which resulted in some very nice patterns. Unfortunately, however, I wasn’t able to pursue it at that time. Besides the fact that the minimum volume was still too big, I also thought it would not work inside the notebooks. The paper is too rough and the production would become too expensive. So, I decided for now to stick to new, FSC certified paper (from responsible sources). However, I am working on a new product made with our recycled pages. It’s still early stages, but I had the idea to make postcards and ask fellow artists to contribute a sketch or a note. Eventually, it’s my goal to reuse or repurpose all materials and thereby become more and more circular.
Is every single cover unique?
Well, there were also “Harry Potters” 100 years ago, so, we also have multiple copies of one book. But then again, they all have a different past. One may have always been sitting on a shelf in a library, one may have been passed on multiple times and read over and over again. Also, like today, we receive different editions and publications that come in equally different designs. In that way, all copies are unique in their own way. You can really look for a notebook that suits you and speaks to you, for the perfect match if you will.
Where can we find About Blanks notebooks in Rotterdam?
At the moment you find our notebooks at Voorlopig, Sluijter & Meijer, Ruby Lee or of course in our webshop. On our website you can also find an entire overview of our store locations.
Where do you get your books from?
Almost everywhere. I have a couple of suppliers whose main business is to sell second hand books, but I also go to thrift shops, book markets or get book donations.
So I can also donate to you?
Yes, that would be amazing. The company has been growing a lot. Given that every notebook is unique and selling around 20.000 a year, you can imagine how high our need for old books is (laughs). So, if you are cleaning up your bookcase and want to give your old books a new life, give us a shout. We’re always searching for old books covers and would love to buy them from you.
Do you have a deadline, like only books before 1950?
No, not at all. The books obviously need to be old and discarded due to esthetics and our philosophy. If they are too new other people might still be willing to read it and that would not be in line with our values. We want to reuse and increase the value of what otherwise would be lost.