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Peter Hopkins and Heidi Zheng at the Dial - COURTESY THE DIAL BOOKSHOP

  • Peter Hopkins and Heidi Zheng at the Dial
  • courtesy the Dial Bookshop

Heidi Zheng never had plans to run a bookstore. In fact, neither she nor her husband, Peter Hopkins, had any retail experience when they were approached to take over the Dial Bookshop. But still, it was an opportunity they couldn’t pass up. “What a story!” Zheng says. “That’s the thing about people who grow up reading too many books, I simply cannot refuse because it’s such a good story.”

And there’s much more to the story: Zheng and Hopkins had their first date at the Dial in the Fine Arts Building in the Loop in December 2018. When deciding where to go Zheng dropped the name of her favorite bookstore with a casual yet trying-to-be-cool “Have you heard of it?” Hopkins had not only heard of it, he built it. A woodworker and friend of the owners, he constructed the bookshelves when the space opened as the Dial in 2017. Six months after their first date, the couple got married and had a party at the bookstore. One month after that, store owners Mary Gibbons and Aaron Lippelt decided to get married themselves and move to Michigan, and they asked Zheng and Hopkins to take over. The two signed an agreement to take on the lease and the business starting on April 1, 2020.

“It’s sort of hard to separate all the nervousness and excitement I feel around owning a bookstore from all that’s attached to the current moment,” Hopkins says.

Navigating the choppy and uncertain waters of doing business during a pandemic is daunting enough for a seasoned shop owner, and for a pair with no experience it could easily be enough to call it quits. But Zheng and Hopkins are keeping the Dial afloat thanks to support from Chicago’s independent bookstore community, loyal Dial devotees, and the couple’s love for books and the store that brought them together.

“They met and married in a bookstore, so I don’t need to tell you that they love books,” Gibbons says. “But their personalities really compliment each other in a way that I think makes them good business partners in addition to good life partners. Peter is more precise, methodical, and analytical and really has a handle on the business end of things in a way that Aaron nor I never did. Heidi has a real passion and creativity that will draw readers into the store and towards books they might not find on their own. I can’t wait to see how they improve on the shop in the years to come.”

Zheng grew up in China where she started reading around the age of four. Books became her entire identity, the way she understood society and learned about the world around her. When she was 14, her family moved to the United States. Self-conscious about her accent and nervous about interacting with other students or teachers, she used books to learn and perfect English. “The last book I ever read in Chinese before I left the country was Lolita,” Zheng says. “It was very inappropriate, I don’t know why my parents let me read it, at Lolita’s age no less. But I just kind of cross-referenced the Chinese edition and English edition side-by-side with words I didn’t know.” Soon after, when Zheng was a junior in high school, Jeffrey Eugenides’s novel The Marriage Plot came out, and she took that and ran. The book takes place at Brown University in the 80s, and Zheng wrote down every reference to an author or a book and created her own reading list of works related to continental philosophy—Nietzsche and Heidegger among them.

“It’s not lost on me that these are all dead white men,” Zheng says. “But I think that’s also the function of being a first-generation immigrant myself is that a lot of the information I consciously absorbed was to help me assimilate and have the cultural currency to be able to hold a conversation in the institution that is the university.”

In the years since, Zheng has diversified her own reading list, and now as the person in charge of the Dial she is working to do the same for her customers. A lot of attention has been given to Instagram, where every Saturday she posts five weekend picks, providing a range of books. “I pay a lot of attention to the genre split and the gender and the national origin of the authors and try to squeeze in at least one translated work or work based in non-Western settings just to kind of diversify what our readers can see,” Zheng says. “And it’s not like checking off a box, like we gotta have one Black female, we gotta have one Indigenous person. I also pay attention to the content, too, because I know that not everyone wants to keep reading autofiction or autobiographical work. I know there are a lot of good scholars of Asian descent who don’t write about Asian stuff at all, and I want to feature those as well to show just another way that diversity is not just about amplifying voices talking about themselves, those voices are able to tell other stories as well.”

Another online initiative has been the monthly book club in which subscribers receive a mystery book and then talk about it via Zoom. The surprise aspect, Zheng says, really allows her to give readers something they would not normally read on their own. And the results have been overwhelmingly positive—not only were there more subscribers than books originally ordered, but it’s also become clear from the discussions that readers have loved the books and sought out more works by those authors or similar stories.

The two books Zheng recommends to customers now are The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio and Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, both works that offer a multidimensional and very redeeming depiction of the immigrant experience. Similarly, Hopkins recommends reading the play Kim’s Convenience by Ins Choi, about a Korean family who opens a convenience store in Canada and the tension that develops between the parents, who fondly remember Korea, and their children, who are ready for a new life. And former Dial owner Gibbons, who started her first garden in quarantine, recommends Fermented Vegetables by Christopher and Kirsten Shockey, an intro to the art of fermentation.

As the Dial has worked to find its footing, the support from other shops in the city has been instrumental. “Here in Chicago the indie bookstore community is extremely supportive and helpful,” Zheng says. “There’s a lot of resource sharing and guidance and a lot of warmth, too. People would approach us first and be like, you’re obviously new and this is a weird time, so this is what you’re supposed to do.”

The Dial opened its doors for in-person business on July 6, and despite a power outage on the first, very hot day, things have been running fairly smoothly. Zheng and Hopkins are working hard to ensure all social distancing regulations are being observed, but have still had as many customers as they can in at a time. Future plans for the store include an initiative to support local authors and cultivate that community, as well as expanding the book club program and eventually selling more custom library furniture like the shelves Hopkins built for the store. For now, they are finding delight in being able to share their love of books and return to a sense of relative normalcy.

“It’s really nice to have those interactions,” Zheng says. “It’s really nice to our regulars and put faces to the names, but it’s also nice to kind of see that like surprise and joy on people’s faces when they walk in and realize it’s a bookstore.”   v

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