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In the winter of 1995, Nikolaus Gelpke called his childhood friend Zora del Buono with an idea. He wanted to launch a magazine, he said: Der Spiegel for the sea. Neither of them had any experience in journalism whatsoever: Gelpke was a marine biologist and Del Buono an architect. Yet Del Buono immediately jumped into her car and drove from Berlin to Kiel to visit Gelpke and discuss his proposal. Back in Berlin she wrote down all of her ideas for the magazine: four pages of narrow type that she keeps at her desk to this day. Not out of nostalgia; at Mare magazine, ideas have a particularly long shelf life.

Mare, “the magazine of the seas”, was launched in 1997. It publishes six issues a year at a circulation of 27,000 and only in German. Describing it isn’t easy even for the people who’ve worked there for many years. It isn’t naval; neither does it cover travel, water sports or ecological issues. Instead it is interested in the effect that the sea has on people. “It is something that connects humankind more than it separates – and that is the idea behind Mare,” says Karl Spurzem, who is the deputy editor in chief. “The ambivalence regarding the sea is mirrored in the magazine: one can stand on the Aeolian Islands and enjoy their beauty and at the same time be aware that just beyond the horizon, people are drowning.”

A cover story can be about the Panama Canal, the children of the 1970s dropouts on La Gomera or the place of Venus in art and cooking. A feature on the social problems of the port of Lagos is followed by poetry. A story about an old meteorologist living alone on the edge of Siberia is currently nominated for a prestigious German photojournalism award. Many of the stories are historical, most strike a literary note and all take their time to get to the point. Both the language and the photography feel carefully crafted. The format is large and the paper is heavy and smooth. A vague sense of yearning pervades throughout. So Mare never became Der Spiegel for the sea. Instead, the publication that most influenced it was Swiss culture magazine Du, with its slow pace, abundant white space and monothematic issues. This was the magazine that the founders had grown up with: Del Buono, Gelpke, photo editor Barbara Stauss and former art director Claudia Bock are all Swiss. Of the four only Gelpke had a special relationship with the sea or has even lived near it (a ratio the Mare staff roughly maintain to this day). But they all wanted to tell stories.

The three women even refused to follow their publisher and editor in chief to Hamburg, fearing that they would miss Berlin’s nightlife. That’s why to this day Mare has two offices and a monthly two-day editorial meeting in Hamburg. The Hamburg office is aptly located in a former harbour storehouse, with a maze of hallways, creaky wooden floors and small rooms, the walls of which are covered with maps, bookshelves and stunning photography from previous Mare shoots. The Berlin office is an open-plan former workshop floor in the Kreuzberg neighbourhood, with 1980s furniture and red rugs on orange floors that Del Buono says they can’t bring themselves to change.

Time seems to tick along at a different speed at Mare. Editors plan a year ahead and always work on six issues at the same time. A single feature can take up to a year to produce. An ideas wall in the conference room is covered in Post-it notes, sometimes a decade old. Even hand-writing the Christmas cards takes up several days every year. “Mare is more of a book than a magazine,” says Dimitri Ladischensky, the politics editor. “You should be able to read every issue in five years’ time and still find it interesting.” Like most senior staff he has been with the magazine since the early 2000s. Spurzem explains that it takes everybody a while to truly understand Mare – in his own case, two to three years.

Mirroring the magazine, the people at Mare combine calmness with zeal. They refer to themselves as a family and in this case the cliché bears out: Gelpke, Del Buono, Stauss and others talk a lot, and with much affection, of all the heated arguments they have. There’s no doubting their strong opinions but the overall sense is of a group of people who trust each other implicitly and care about the same things.

One of those things is to help their contributors do the best work possible. Many of the writers and photographers have been with the magazine for years, if not decades. “I only commission photographers who make a living from reportage and I always try to assign them a story that fits into their complete works,” says Stauss. “I wouldn’t hire an advertising photographer who wants to dabble in journalism. We want to support dedication.” Mare’s annual photo book might take two years to produce: if a photographer doesn’t get it right the first time round, Gelpke will work with them until they do. (One photographer called the experience a “rite of passage”.)

That Mare is hard to peg is reflected in the nature of the advertisers within its pages: an ad for luxury watches might be followed by one for a shipping logistics company, then one for an independent left-wing newspaper. Mare launched a TV programme – dedicated to marine matters – in collaboration with public broadcaster ndr in 2001, a book-publishing arm in 2002 and a radio station in 2004. Book publishing now provides the company’s financial backbone after a serious financial crisis in 2007. Gelpke pulled it back from the brink by radically cutting costs at the magazine (in marketing, not editorial) and hiring a new editor, Katja Scholtz, to take over the books section.

Like the magazine, Mare books are collectors’ items. They publish about 20 a year, mostly novels and only in hardcover; everything from cover design to the colour of cloth and fore edge are carefully selected in-house. All books have a vague connection to the sea, though how vague it can be took Scholtz over a year to learn.

Alas, the need for a maritime connection can sometimes lead to headaches. Mare had its biggest publishing success with Judith Schalansky’s Atlas of Remote Islands, which has sold over 50,000 copies, been translated into 20 languages and won the award for most beautiful German book in 2009. However, when Schalansky’s follow-up title had nothing whatsoever to do with the sea, the author decided to go to another (and bigger) publishing company. Still, Mare has hit a nerve. “We’re definitely profiting from the trend in beautiful and expensive books,” says Scholtz.

Gelpke says none of his decisions to diversify were driven by commercial motivations. Rather, he has always acted out of conviction. He’s not involved in the day-to-day management of the TV programme anymore and says the value of the roughly one million viewers every two weeks is in brand awareness rather than direct income; it has helped maintain circulation after he decided to stop marketing the magazine. The same goes for radio.

Also helping Mare is the fact that, just like beautiful books, slow storytelling has become fashionable again. “You only have to be untrendy for long enough, then you might find yourself hip all of a sudden,” says Spurzem, smiling.

No matter the trend, Mare’s editors are in it for the long haul. When asked if they ever get bored they respond with surprised looks. Their stories are much too interesting, their work much too varied, for that to ever happen. Also, they are aware of their privileged position – especially when they consider the downfall of Du, which they hold in lower regard today. Says Stauss: “Everywhere, standards have declined. People are paid less and less. But we are still able to do good work. That is something I can appreciate now in a way I wouldn’t have before.”

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