As Chicago entered Phase 4 of its reopening, The Dial Bookshop in the South Loop opened its doors again on July 1st. Although non-essential retail was permitted to open during Phase 3, owners Heidi Zheng and Peter Hopkins decided to be cautious. As they waited, they anticipated reopening with nervous excitement. As Zheng said, “Nobody knows how this is going to go.”
While many bookstores across Chicago are in a similar position, the tingle of nerves for Zheng and Hopkins may be particularly strong, as their relationship to The Dial has changed significantly in recent months. The store’s previous owners, Mary Gibbons and Aaron Lippelt, handed over the keys to the couple on April 1st, converting Zheng and Hopkins from loyal patrons of The Dial into its new owners.
This isn’t the first time The Dial has been the site of a major transition in the couple’s lives. Zheng and Hopkins were both book lovers and regular customers at The Dial when they initially connected on a dating app. The two met up in The Dial and traded first impressions as they browsed the shelves.
Reader, they got married in that bookstore. Last June, then-owners Gibbons and Lippelt (who had eavesdropped on their first date) closed the store early, and the couple tied the knot surrounded by friends, family, and the lofty, graceful floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that Hopkins himself built. The couple allowed each of their guests to choose a book as a wedding favor — as Zheng calls it, “an open book bar.”
When Lippelt and Gibbons decided to move on, they offered The Dial to the newlyweds. Although neither Zheng nor Hopkins had any retail experience, she explained that they couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
“It’s just that we love books and it’s great that we got to do this thing that is every bookworm kid’s dream growing up,” said Zheng.
In even the smoothest of times, stepping into a new industry would have its challenges. These are not the smoothest of times. Starting in late March, Coronavirus rocked small businesses everywhere, introducing unprecedented uncertainty and creating an existential threat even to longtime neighborhood favorites.
Zheng and Hopkins were learning the ropes of an industry in upheaval. Shipping presented a particular challenge early on.
“USPS just couldn’t figure out how to handle this influx of packages while there was a shortage of workers,” said Zheng. And in a new business landscape where mail order was crucial, this made both ordering books for the shop and getting books out to customers difficult.
It was also difficult to maintain the shop’s supply of used books, a large percentage of their inventory. Wholesalers shut or slowed down as the pandemic progressed, and Zheng and Hopkins were unable to go to book sales at libraries, schools, or estates.
But many of The Dial’s customers took the owner transition and the pandemic difficulties in stride, surprising Zheng and Hopkins with their enthusiastic support.
Zheng cited customer Seth Kim-Cohen as an example: “He was our first ever customer, and it’s literally through his orders that we learned how to use certain publishers’ websites, how to track packages that were sent from warehouses….We learned so much just by placing orders for him, and we made so many mistakes. He was so patient. He’d say, ‘Don’t worry about it — it’s fine!’”
In response to The Dial’s dwindling used book supply, some customers donated books that they’d previously purchased from The Dial back to the store. This let The Dial sell the books again.
Though they didn’t anticipate having to operate their new bookstore remotely, Zheng and Hopkins got right to work. They introduced themselves in The Dial’s newsletter. They tracked down and filled customer orders ranging from Spanish-language children’s workbooks to an out-of-print Engineering textbook. Zheng began painstakingly selecting the books for The Dial’s Book of the Month club, a decision she describes as “Such a rush!” She also started to curate The Dial’s Weekend Pics, a selection of five books they feature on the shop’s Instagram every Saturday.
As Zheng and Hopkins adapted to the conditions created by the coronavirus, the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers and the subsequent groundswell of support for the Black Lives Matter movement resulted in a different kind of challenge for The Dial.
Besides managing the avalanche of orders for books like White Fragility and How to be an Anti-Racist, Zheng and Hopkins had to determine how to support the BLM movement and the customers who wanted to read books about race and police brutality without exploiting the movement or the people it is about.
“We’re booksellers,” Zheng said, “so it’s a really sensitive line to try to walk, between introducing people to good books and profiting off of this moment.”
Ultimately, the couple decided to forgo creating “must read” lists or other promotions of popular books on police brutality or race. Instead, they identified books that “broaden the conversation we are having” and contextualize it “beyond the present moment.” The books they selected can be found on The Dial’s homepage.
Zheng is confident that The Dial can thrive in a reopened Chicago.
After all, not everything has changed. The Dial is still conveniently located in the Loop. It still has a collection of books that its Yelp reviewers call “well-curated,” “reasonably-priced,” and “in good condition.”
And Zheng and Hopkins have plans. They intend to expand their collection of social science and philosophy books and collaborate with local poets and authors to promote their work in the store. They will also offer the store as a rental space on Sundays for events and filming.
While she knows that The Dial can do well, Zheng is nevertheless “worried about rent.” It’s difficult to predict how quickly The Dial will reach pre-pandemic levels of customer traffic. Even setting health concerns aside, customers have had months of practice shopping for books online.
But The Dial offers something even the most helpful algorithmically-generated book recommendations lack: the browsing experience.
Zheng describes browsing at The Dial as transcendent: “The light, when it hits the shelves, [makes me] feel better about myself as a person. I feel cleansed. You know, like, ‘I’m kind of cool.’ Especially because of these high shelves, it’s so continuous, you have this sense of abundance and joy from that: ‘There’s so much! I’m going to look at every single spine! It’s going to take hours! This is great!’”
With their daily lives compressed and circumscribed in recent months, the idea of browsing in a physical bookstore like The Dial may have a special appeal to readers. To share space with so many books, to commune so conveniently with so many authors may offer both exhilaration and solace. While accessing this kind of space rightfully took a back seat to health and safety and grocery stores and banks, it nevertheless feels essential right now.
As Zheng put it, a bookstore can “make you feel like there are so many better things out there. It’s like an oasis, or some kind of aspirational home, and it’s just a good space to be in. And that’s something that we’re trying to maintain.” The Dial Bookshop is on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Ave.
Dana is a writer and editor living in Chicago.