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How Two Independent Bookstores Are Surviving COVID

These two bookstores in Chicago are surviving and thriving.

By Featured, Literature

Illustration by Yajurvi Haritwal

A year and a half into the pandemic, independent stores city-wide are still tackling the most difficult challenges they’ve faced yet. Thankfully, community support has kept these neighborhood treasures afloat.

Women & Children First

Women & Children First, a feminist bookstore located in Andersonville, is one of these treasures.

Since their original opening in 1979, Women & Children first is focused on creating a safe space for their surrounding communities, and is involved with community efforts. In 2014, Women & Children First came under the new ownership of Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck, who strive to maintain the mission of Women & Children First’s founders Ann Christophersen and Linda Bubon.

“It’s critical to us to give a full voice to BIPOC women in our community and the trans women in our community. Being trans-inclusive feminists was a leadership role we could take on,” says Lynn Mooney, one of the co-owners of Women & Children First. “We’re always in dialogue with the staff and communities we serve.”

After the pandemic hit, like most small businesses around the globe, they had to shift gears online in the months their physical store was closed. “We started promoting our website more,” says Mooney. “We had always had a website, but it wasn’t the biggest part of our business. Now, it’s a big part of our business; it’s almost the sole part of our business.”

Women & Children First have been supported by the community since their first closure in March 2020, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. According to Mooney, they were receiving phone calls from patrons lending support and placing orders. “We feel fortunate, and we feel rewarded. It’s been quite a ride. It’s very humbling to have this support from the community. There are times when I think to myself, ‘this is what community looks like.’”

As for the future, Mooney is hopeful. “I do think we’re going to get through this.”

Women & Children First has recently reopened for browsing in March 2021. They are still offering curbside pickup and online ordering on their website. Their instagram handle is @wcfbook and their website is womenandchildrenfirst.com.

The Dial Bookshop

The Dial Bookshop is an independent bookstore located in the Fine Arts Building in the Loop. Bookworms turned business owners, husband and wife duo Heidi Zhang and Peter Hopkins are the most recent owners of the Dial Bookshop. The couple took over the Dial right as the pandemic started, and have learned the ropes of business ownership along the way.

“One of the main reasons why Peter and I wanted to have a bookstore is we want to introduce more people to the books and writers we love and think they should be more well-known, to share our enthusiasm and delight with our customers,” shares Heidi Zhang, co-owner of the Dial.

“The Dial exists in an ecosystem of books: people who buy them, people who sell them, and most importantly, people who write and publish them.”

Because of their ecosystem-like mission, the Dial is committed to promoting local writers and presses. “We are starting a local author/press program, where we give all the proceeds to indie press books written by Chicago-based writers to the writers directly, without taking a cut. This is in addition to a special table in the Fiction room, where we prominently feature authors with Chicago roots.”

As one can imagine, running a business during a pandemic is difficult, let alone taking on a business within the first weeks of a shutdown. However, Zhang had a solution to the lack of foot traffic they were experiencing. 

“We were physically closed for the first few months we owned the store, so we created a book club where we send an undisclosed book of our choosing to subscribers, then follow up with a short missive on the book to inspire discussion over Zoom later in the month.”

The Dial is open for in-person shopping in addition to an online catalog that includes their book club subscription. Their instagram handle is @thedialbookshop and their website is dialbookshop.com

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