Features

Behold Chicago’s Brand New Downtown Bookstore

The Dial Bookshop in the Loop's Fine Arts Building is named after the 19th century literary magazine.

The Dial Bookshop, housed comfortably on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Ave, had its grand opening this past Friday, during Chicago’s first snow of the season. This felt fitting somehow. There’s a certain magic to snowfall, a renewal of wonder even amidst the inconveniences.

When I entered the Dial, the wonder I felt was that the store was packed, nearly overflowing with patrons. While I expected the bookstore to be busy, I didn’t imagine, on this frigid day especially, that it would be crowded, and that there would be so many bibliophiles perusing the store’s shelves. It was clear from the start: People were thrilled to be there and they were thrilled that the Dial was there for them. Free wine helps, and certainly the gourmet marshmallows and homemade cookies (which my wife attests were delicious). There was also a live band, Riley and the Red Hots, which added to the store’s warm ambiance. But the great charm of the Dial lies beyond the flair of a free event. Like the Fine Arts Building itself, the Dial is gorgeous.

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Which, if you’re familiar with Pilsen Community Books, should come as no surprise. Opened just two years ago by owners Mary Gibbons and Aaron Lippelt, Pilsen Community Books is a new and used bookstore that is a sight to behold. Their Instagram pictures are stunning, showcasing the bookstore’s minimalist approach, robust selection, and wonderful lighting, all contributing to an inviting atmosphere.

While their new bookstore, the Dial, has a feel all its own, one can easily see the brilliance in Mary and Aaron’s aesthetics, one that seems to be shaped, in this case, by the history of the Fine Arts Building. You don’t need me to tell you that the Fine Arts Building is a feat of spectacular architecture, one of rounded arches, granite pillars, marble hallways, and a history that seems to live on, despite our modern contrivances. Aaron found that the building and the space was so naturally beautiful that, “Our only aesthetic goal was to ‘not ruin it’.” He added, “When we first saw the empty space, we were actually sad that we had to add any books or shelves.” Surprisingly, their first draft for the Dial was “a high concept bookstore that sells one book at a time (preferably displayed on austere white obelisk in center of room).” Imagine that!

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Aaron Lippelt and Mary Gibbons.

The Dial itself is named after the literary magazine that was revived in this very building in 1880 (after its first life as a transcendentalist journal in 1840), and they proudly display clippings of that journal in the store. While there are some tables of books and journals, most of the books are shelved in high bookcases that give the feeling that the very walls are constructed of paper.

And the bookcases themselves? Well, there’s a story behind them too, as Aaron told me, “The shelves were all made by Peter Hopkins. A Pilsen resident, book reader, woodworker. Peter was a regular customer at Pilsen Community Books. I don’t know how we got onto the subject, but Mary and I found out Peter was a woodworker. After showing him the space in the Fine Arts Building, Peter offered to craft the shelving in the new store.” In the future, Peter is going to be creating reading/writing-related objects for sale at Pilsen Community Books and the Dial (Which, according to Aaron, will be pencil boxes, tiny book shelves, hanging display shelves, desktop organizers, etc).

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Right now, these bookcases hold a solid mix of used, new, and antiquarian books. You can get a new paperback of Zadie Smith’s Swing Time or a pristine used copy of Richard Wright’s Black Boy, or just about any Jeanette Winterson book you can think of. They have a young adult section, there’s also science fiction, poetry, philosophy, history, and some really beautiful art books. While the Dial is going to share many of the same characteristics with Pilsen Community Books, Aaron told me that because of the building’s architectural history, “We’ll be selling an expanded selection of architecture titles. But, like Pilsen Community Books, it will take us many months to get to know the customers in the Fine Arts Building. The genre mix at Pilsen shifted a lot in the first six months to accommodate our customers’ suggestions. We are interested in getting to meet the readers that visit the Dial.”

I wonder how the store will shift to accommodate the Dial’s future community, and it will be interesting to see if some of the smaller sections, like children’s hardcovers, will expand or contract with the demands of the store. In the meantime, I loved how the Dial had special front facing displays of books, including new hardcovers, pictured here.

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I found some gems too, most notably a beautiful copy of Confucius’ The Analects (published by the Folio Society), which, at fifteen dollars, felt like a steal.

So, you have the store, you have the books, what else is there? Well there’s the essential part of every successful independent bookstore: the booksellers. Kelsey, pictured here, is a bookseller by way of Roscoe Books.

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Knowing her from Roscoe Books, I can attest that she’s enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and will be a perfect fit at the Dial. She will also have a big part in the store’s events, and when I asked her about them she told me, “Once we get up and running, we’re definitely planning to host author readings and signings, as well as relevant community-building events.” Like the eventual shift in the store’s stock, it will be interesting to see what parts of the Fine Arts Building will be utilized (or can be utilized) for these events. I can imagine that the space itself will provide unique readings, which is exciting to think about.

I didn’t get much chance to talk to Manuel, already a bookseller at Pilsen Community Books who will also work at the Dial, since he came straight from Pilsen to the grand opening and was already helping a customer as he entered. Mary and Aaron call Manuel a “Chicago bookselling legend”, and seeing him in action, and his passion for books and bookselling, I can see why. His travels across the city visiting bookstores and talking to booksellers ended up leading them, in fact, to opening this second store, which they had no plans for originally. Says Aaron, “One night, Manuel walked in with the news that Keith from Selected Works was planning on retiring. Manuel was familiar with the Fine Arts Building – he had worked as a bookseller in the Fine Arts Building in the past – and he said that the building owner would probably be interested in keeping the legacy of bookselling alive in the building.” They talked to building ownership and one thing led to another. They found it heartening that “everyone associated with the building’s management had a deep and passionate knowledge about the literary history of the Fine Arts Building. We have never run across such great stewards of a historic building.”

Aaron and Mary seem to be living up to this history and to this passion, and I was surprised to see, despite the crowd, that they were warm and engaging with every customer that they came across. Aaron was genuinely thrilled that I had found this copy of The Analects, and Mary was relieved, and touched, that so many people came to support the store. What was equally heartening to see, for me, was not just this outpouring of support from book lovers, but also people in the wider bookselling community, with Chicago booksellers, reps, and authors in attendance. We often hear horror stories of the decline of bookstores, and, yes, the closing of bookstores like Selected Works is scary. But this grand opening shows that the future for books and independent bookstores can be bright too.

This was just the first day and the store will surely shift and change and evolve to meet the demands of the clientele. Will that clientele be comprised mostly of artists or people seeing shows in the Fine Arts Building? Or, perhaps tourists will find their way here? Or will students at Columbia College or Roosevelt make this their bookstore of choice? With just this first day, none of this can be certain. But one thing is for sure, whatever the Dial will become, it will be a welcome addition to Chicago’s amazing independent bookstores.

Credit for these photos goes to Katharine Solheim.

The Dial Bookshop can be found at 410 South Michigan Ave, Suite 210. They will be open Monday-Friday 12-8pm, and Saturday-Sunday 12-6pm.

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