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Updated: January 27, 2020 On the record

Alli Harper, of OurShelves, doesn't want kids to judge a book by its cover

Photo / Jim Neuger Alli Harper is the founder and owner of OurShelves, an online seller of children’s books featuring diverse characters and inclusive themes. She chatted with Mainebiz at her book warehouse in Cumberland.

Alli Harper is the founder and owner of OurShelves, a Cumberland-based online seller of children’s books featuring diverse characters and inclusive themes.

Harper, a former lawyer and community organizer who worked on the 2012 same-sex marriage equality campaign in Maryland, chatted with Mainebiz in a renovated barn that serves as a warehouse full of colorful children’s books.

Mainebiz: How did you get from law to starting this business?

Alli Harper: My wife, Jenn, and I have two children — Anna is about to turn seven and Isaac just turned one. The beginning of OurShelves starts with the birth of our daughter, Anna. I was working on the marriage-equality campaign in Maryland, which we won, and Jen I were able to get married just before we birthed Anna. Books are really important to us — we were married in a library — and we started asking all our friends and family what children’s books they recommended that included two-mom families like ours, and also books that would feature all different kinds of kids and families. It was important to us that our bookshelves affirmed our own family for our kids, but also reflected our inclusive values and included all different kinds of kids and families that we would really want to surround our kids with in real life and also in our books.

MB: Where does OurShelves come in?

AH: We have a dual mission. The first part of our mission is to connect high-quality, age-appropriate diverse kids’ books with those seeking them — families, teachers, librarians, acupuncturists, physicians — anywhere there are kids’ books, and people who want their bookshelves to reflect their inclusive values. The second part of our mission is to advocate for the many more high-quality, age-appropriate diverse kids’ books needed. 

MB: How do your book subscriptions work?

AH: We ship quarterly, and you can choose whether you want one, three or five books in a box—for a total of four book boxes a year [the Sunshine Box for ages 0-2, the Rainbow Box for ages 2-5 or the Treehouse Box for ages 5-8]. We have members in 49 states and Washington, D.C., so we’re proud of that reach.

MB: Why ecommerce and subscriptions rather than traditional retail?

AH: The subscription is important to proving a sustained growing market to publishers. When somebody subscribes to OurShelves, they’re not only subscribing to high-quality, age-appropriate diverse children’s books selected by an expert curation team, they’re also being counted as part of our advocacy effort with the publishers to prove the significant audience for these books.

MB: All individual customers, or also stores and B2B customers?

AH: So far all our members include families, teachers, schools, preschools, childcare centers, acupuncturists, physicians, librarians. When we launched, 87% of our initial members signed up for subscriptions (versus one-time boxes), and 76% of those subscriptions pre-paid for a year. That was exciting for us, because that showed people were willing to incur risk.

MB: What’s next for OurShelves?

AH: In 2020, we are working on growth, and working to smooth out the technical backend issues with the support of MTI [Maine Technology Institute], which also gave us a grant to do the market research to launch. The third piece is growing our advocacy strategy. Our members are extremely passionate, extremely engaged, and that’s been critical to our first year.

MB: Any new business areas of interest?

AH: In 2020, we are also looking to expand into chapter books for the next age group up, as well as the start of international expansion into Canada.

MB: Based on your entrepreneurial experience so far, what’s your advice to others starting a business?

AH: To embrace the experimentation! There’s so much one doesn’t know when you’re starting, and you just have get started, and experiment and learn and create both a staff environment and a membership environment where people feel free to speak up. I always tell our staff and our members that the only way we can prioritize what we need to grow is to receive honest and open feedback.

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