As soon as you step through the virtual doorway to Our Story Time, you will find yourself lost amongst gifts and homewares to make your home that little bit magical. Having been chatting to Huma, Our Story Time’s creator & curator, through Instagram for a while (and comparing newborn baby notes!) I was excited to discover more about her & the incredible job she does painting the storybook world her thoughtfully chosen independent designs live in. Everything about Our Story Time has a sprinkle of Huma’s magic touch – her words are a delight to read, and the genuine passion she has for sharing her story and vision make the shop and all its delights truly special. If you’ve ever thought about opening your own retail space online and are a lover of beautifully-woven stories, read on…
Please can you introduce yourself and Our Story Time?
I’m Huma, curator and owner of Our Story Time, an online store of curious, unusual and inspiring products for the home, for children and gift-giving. Through Our Story Time, I have captured and created the world of a modern-day fairy tale, full of beautiful, thoughtful and luxurious pieces, from imaginative art prints and hand-printed textiles to sumptuously-scented soy candles and all-natural beauty products made from the finest ingredients. I mostly source products that are artisan-made in small batches, which adds to the uniqueness of the products you can find in my store. Our Story Time is inspired by my favourite moment of the day, reading stories with my three little boys, when we snuggle up and we lose ourselves in the enchanted words of stories.
How did your previous work & life bring you to where you are now?
I’ve always been a storyteller. I used to work as a journalist for the Guardian and Observer for many years, writing a lot about pivotal moments in other people’s lives, which in turn led me to write a book, a collection of literary short stories. I’ve also always been very visual and inspired by interior spaces and aesthetics – in my previous work, I wrote for and styled for interiors magazines and ran a successful interiors blog for many years. So in a way, both of those threads – writing and styling – have become entwined in the creation of Our Story Time. It combines both story-telling through words and through aesthetics, the result of which is that Our Story Time tells its own, other-worldly story. While pregnant with my third child, I decided it was time for a fresh start. I had this very strong need to feel creative, in a way that combined my passions and strengths. Our Story Time was launched in October 2017, two months after my baby boy was born. And so that’s where I am at right now.
Talk me through the experience of setting up your online shop. What have you found surprising about it – both good and bad?
It’s been quite a journey, from coming up with the idea for Our Story Time, to contacting suppliers, getting products in, then getting them up on the site, not to mention keeping on top of social media. There’s an awful lot to do. I always thought I’d have to hire lots of people to help me every step of the way – someone to help with the techy things I knew nothing about, like SEO, someone to take better photographs. But then I came to be pleasantly surprised when I realised that I could do it myself, and I’m glad I have done.
You need to know the ins and outs to understand what’s going on in your business. Yes, it means I’ve had a huge amount to do in the early months, but I’ve learnt a lot. I feel my photography has improved and it feels great to know I don’t have to depend on anyone else for these things. But there are times when you do have to go to the experts, for sure.
The Our Story Time you see now is very different in branding style to the Our Story Time that existed six months ago. That’s because I originally did my own branding but I never quite felt happy with it. I read Fiona Humberstone’s brilliant books on branding before I started, but even so, I rushed it (I finished it on the day I went into labour – it was as if I had a sixth sense that I needed to get it done quickly!). I’ve always loved design and branding and typography but that’s not the same as really being able to create your own logo or brand. I’m so glad that I found a wonderful designer, Meg at Lemon & Birch who helped translate my vision for Our Story Time as being timeless and magical into something with so much flair in colours that are so rich and meaningful and layered.
What I love the most is the behind-the-scenes work. Curating a collection is where my passion is – I love taking the time to moodboard, play with colours, conjure up a feeling that I want all the products to encapuslate (I will be releasing collections inspired by literary works, and this has been incredible, I’ve loved every step of curating with this inspiration in mind).
One of the most enjoyable parts for me is when the products start to arrive and I get to open the deliveries, one by one. I still get excited with every single piece that arrives. I love seeing individual pieces become part of a collection. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how positive some of my earliest suppliers, makers and crafters were about being stocked in my shop – this was before I even had a website to show them. But they believed in the message of Our Story Time – of bringing magic to the everyday. Whenever I receive an order, my heart flutters and I love spending time to wrap each item up with care, knowing that it will make someone very happy indeed. It’s a magical moment to hit the “order fulfilled” button and know that they’ll get an email telling them their parcel is on its way to them.
You do such a great job of painting a whimsical world for your products to live in – why and how do stories play a role in the products you choose?
When I created Our Story Time, I had an idea that it would be more than simply a shop from which to buy lovely products. I specifically wanted it to be just like stepping into a story book, a whole world of its own, a moment of escapism – a storybook world full of marvellous creations that you can’t help but reach out and touch and behold and be enraptured by. I wanted it to be magical. Why? Because for some time, I had fallen out of love with the experience of shopping. I was seeing the same brands at the same shops, independent or otherwise. The same styles. I was losing the sense of excitement and satisfaction in making a longed-for purchase because everything felt transactional rather than aspirational or inspirational. My favourite shops were all starting to look the same; selling the same brands, the same aesthetic. It’s as if the immediacy of shopping online had made shopping lose its sparkle – after all, if you save for something, you want it to feel special, right? So that’s why I wanted to create this world of fancy and flight. A world where curious spaghetti-limbed dolls sit side by side under gold stars and baskets that conjure up the romance of summer days. We can pretty much get anything we want in an instant now, and that’s great if that’s your need – but I think it’s important to infuse meaning into products, in order to learn to slow down, be imaginative and appreciate the beauty of something made by someone’s hands and connect with how it makes you feel.
Following on, what is your favourite story book to share with your children? And what’s your favourite book, if it’s at all possible to choose!
I love children’s books and have so many! If you asked my boys this question, they’d without any hesitation go to their shelf and pick out a book called “Those Pesky Rabbits!” – they refer to it as “Mama’s favourite.” I simply adore this gentle tale about a grumpy old bear who gets very cross when a family of adorable and overly friendly rabbits move in opposite him. They are wonderfully persistent with their miserable neighbour and in the end, they all become friends, watching shooting stars together. I love how heartwarming it is – and I love these kind of innocent books with rabbits that bake cakes or bears that drink tea from china cups, where creatures come to life and everyone lives happily ever after. As for my favourite grown-up book – it is without fail Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri. It’s a beautiful collection of short stories of south Asian family life and loss and love. It inspired me greatly with my own book. Her writing style is so beautiful; she captures sadness with heartbreaking poetry in her prose.
As a new mum, I barely find time to work around one child – how on earth do you manage with 3?! Is there a secret I should know?
That’s very kind of you to say. I shy away from these sort of comments because people often remark on it, when really, it’s only because I just don’t know any different. Each pregnancy and each baby has been linked with some sort of highly creative project or deadline for some reason. With my first child, I was up against my publisher’s deadline for my book manuscript; with my second I was busy with readings at literary festivals and publicity. With my third, it was Our Story Time and the impulse to fulfil a dream and run my own creative business. I don’t know what it is about pregnancy but it sure does spur me into action and I become very compulsive! I am also by nature rather impatient to get things going, so even though I could have waited to start Our Story Time later, I didn’t want to. I was brimming with ideas, and if I hadn’t have started when I did, I think some of the spark would have been lost. I guess that is also part of it – when you find something you love, when you’re feeling so inspired and can’t stop thinking about it, you’ll move mountains for it, no matter how many children you have or don’t have.
As for the practicalities – I suppose having three children aged four and under simply is the secret! Having children so small and so close together has made me very efficient. I swear by creating weekly to-do lists – one for home life, one for business matters. I don’t have the luxury to procrastinate so I just give it my all in the moments I get. It helps that the older two are in nursery, albeit not yet full time, and that my baby is learning to take longer naps. My work hours are essentially nap hours, and I give myself a goal of getting three shop-related jobs done a day which is manageable.
Having a business coach, Kayte at Simple And Season, also hugely helps – I am accountable to her and I owe it to her and myself to make our time count. We work together to make goals and break them down and it keeps me focussed. I also make time to stay inspired – so I listen to podcasts like One Girl Band and Me & Orla while breastfeeding or making the kids’ dinner. The biggest shift I made since Our Story Time was to promise myself that I’d only work on it when the boys are at nursery and the baby is sleeping. When I try to work and they are all around, I begin to unravel a bit and that’s when I snap and they get upset and then the day goes badly. I don’t like myself being that way with them and I want to be present for them, so once I gave myself permission to not have to do everything at the same time, I began to feel more in control. I’ve come to accept that everything is going to take a little bit longer than it would otherwise, but that’s what fits in with my life and I like being in control of what pace I’m working at. Also, my husband, Richard, is great. He takes my business and my plans seriously and gives me childfree time whenever I need it, whether it’s to bash calls out with Kayte, take photos or arrange meetings to organise pop-ups. Having him believe in me means so much, because he’s always there whenever self-doubt creeps in.
What are you inspired by?
My children – their innocence and amazement and wonderful way of looking at the world. I love them to bits!
And what do you most enjoy doing?
Day-to-day life is so busy right now that, honestly, what I most enjoy most is simply being with the boys and Richard in our home and garden without anything major to have to do. I love those unrushed weekends when we don’t have anywhere to go and can just be us. Bake a cake, make hot chocolate, cook a veggie roast. Listen to the boys have their funny little chats together. That’s my idea of loveliness – minus the inevitable toddler tantrums.
What is your dream for the future of Our Story Time?
I would love to reach a point when people simply know Our Story Time. They know the look, they know the feel, they know what it’s about – they’d see something and instantly say, “That’s such a beautiful Our Story Time piece.” That’s the point I’d love to reach. I simply want people to fall in love with Our Story Time and see what I do in it; the spark, the magic, the curiosity.
Finally, what does an independent life mean to you?
To me, an independent life means being liberated. Being free to choose. Make your own choices, the ones you want to, not the ones you feel you “ought” to. It means putting yourself, and your happiness, and the happiness of your partner and children first. And choosing a life together, building a creative life together where anything is possible, really, if you put your mind to it. It’s such an uplifting state of mind.
You can read more of Huma’s wonderful words & discover the magical world she has created over at ourstorytime.co.uk.
All images shared with permission from Our Story Time