Heidi Zhang and Peter Hopkins took over The Dial Bookshop in April Credit: Provided

DOWNTOWN— For Heidi Zhang, books have always played a crucial part in her life.

But the countless tales she’s read could not have prepared her for taking over The Dial Bookshop in the Loop in the middle of a pandemic. 

“It is super rough because we’ve never ran a business or bookstore before. So a lot of the learning curve was already pretty steep in terms of like getting to know the wholesalers, websites to use and the timeline of things in general,” Zhang said.

“And then, of course, the pandemic made it more difficult because we had to move all of our inventory online and it’s harder to do promotion that way.” 

Zhang took over The Dial Bookshop in early April with her husband, Peter Hopkins.

The store on the second floor of the Fine Arts Building at 410 S. Michigan Ave. is set to reopen July 1 with limited capacity and other precautions to prevent the spread of coronavirus. A glass screen at the register will protect staff and customers. Tape on the floor will mark social distancing. The number of people in each space will be limited.

The book store opened in 2017 under co-owners Mary Gibbons and Aaron Lippelt. The name is a nod to the literary magazine The Dial, which existed in a few incarnations in the Fine Arts Building.

Zhang and Hopkins met at The Dial in December 2018. 

“And then we got married there in June 2019,” Zhang said. “And then at the end of July of last year, the previous owners contacted us to see if we had any interest in taking it over.”

The Dial Bookshop on Michigan Avenue in the Fine Arts building Credit: Provided Heidi Zhang

Zhang’s lifelong obsession with books started when she was young. After she immigrated to the United States as a teenager, she used books to teach herself English—specifically Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita,” the last book she read in her native China. 

“I basically taught myself English by having a Chinese edition side by side with an English edition and just cross referencing any word I didn’t know, which was like 90 percent, on a page,” Zhang said.

In the midst of broad social activism, Zhang said bookstores are helping to educate people who have been unaware of systemic racism in the United States. These people have turned to The Dial to buy books about race, racism and white supremacy in the United States, including “White Fragility,” “So You Want to Talk About Race?” and “How to be an Antiracist.”

Zhang said she and Hopkins are careful speaking about current events. As booksellers, they don’t want to overstep their boundaries. 

But she wants to encourage readers to continue learning about movements like Black Lives Matter beyond the current moment. 

“We’re already seeing the sales of these race-literature drop a little bit because people have reached the first burnout point,” Zhang said. “But I want to encourage people to keep going and really make it a lifelong effort and progress.”

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

Subscribe to Block Club Chicago. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.

Already subscribe? Click here to support Block Club with a tax-deductible donation.