A Bookshop Rises From the Ashes
Illustration by John Molesworth
On the 4th of July, 2023, Lucy Yu stood outside of the Chinatown bookstore that bore her name and watched it burn. Yu & Me Books had occupied a ground floor on Mulberry Street in downtown Manhattan for a little more than two years and quickly wove itself into the community in a way that only good bookstores can. “I had regulars that were 80-years old who would come in, and then they’d bring their grandkids,” Lucy told me as we sat together in her store’s temporary location. “To be there and see these cross-generational conversations in the store in our reading room. It was really special, I wasn’t expecting it.”
The authors featured on Yu & Me’s shelves are mostly dedicated to Asian and Asian-American authors, though the wider mission of the store is to highlight immigrant voices who have traditionally struggled for shelf space at bigger bookstores. These are the kind of books that Lucy, who grew up in southern California with a Chinese mother, struggled to find even as a voracious lifelong reader.
She studied to be a chemical engineer at UC Berkeley and spent several years in China managing manufacturing facilities and working in supply chain logistics. It’s not exactly the standard path of a future bookshop owner, but Lucy always harbored other ambitions, even as she was becoming an expert in the global flow of goods.
She tried food first. “A third of our food gets wasted in the supply chain. I was really passionate about it,” she said. Lucy worked as a line cook at a vegan restaurant in Boston, going so far as to shift her day job’s schedule so that she would be able to work the evening shift. It was exhausting, but Lucy was hell bent on finding out whether opening a restaurant was in her future.
It wasn’t—or at least isn’t yet—so instead Lucy went into perishable food logistics, widely considered one of the more challenging disciplines in the supply chain. “I said to myself, ‘I'm going to choose the highest resistance path for whatever I do going forward.’ Let’s just start at the hardest part and see where it goes,” she said.
Doing things the hard way feels like something of a habit for Lucy. She started planning Yu & Me Books while she was working 70 hours every week planning, as she put it, how people get their “soup, smoothies, and grain bowls.” The pandemic also reoriented her priorities: Lucy lost one of her best friends to Covid, and she didn’t want to continue doing something her heart wasn’t in. “When we delve into literature, it allows us to see such a huge range of perspectives. Dedicating time and space to reading feels like it opens up our brains to different sides of conversations,” she said.
Yu & Me’s temporary location pulled the difficult trick of transporting the warmth and intimacy of its Mulberry Street location. It’s like stepping into a friend’s living room, with deep inviting armchairs and stacks of books to dig into. When I ask for recommendations, Lucy reacts like a delighted sommelier, asking me what I’ve enjoyed recently. I give her a mess of an answer mumbling something about Don DeLillo and Alexander Chee, but she finds the throughline in my stumbling and hands me a stack of books that I’m totally unfamiliar with. I’ve loved every one of them. (One of those books, Xiaowei Wang’s “Blockchain Chicken Farm,” has one of my all-time favorite titles.)
The joy of discovering new authors is familiar to anyone who’s spent hours wandering through the stacks at a library or bookstore, but there’s an added emotional layer for readers who have spent their lives looking at names that didn’t sound like their own staring back at them from the rows of spines. “There was a time where I thought I had read every book ever written by an Asian American author. In the past twenty years though, that world of writing has really grown, and each time I'd visit Yu & Me it was a delight to come across all these new books I'd never heard of,” New Yorker staff writer Hua Hsu said. “Before I ever met Lucy or set foot Yu & Me, I felt like I knew what it was: less a store, and more a place to come hang out, be part of something.”
When Hua decided to hold a reading event at Yu & Me for his Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir “Stay True,” he knew he wanted to focus on the “eclectic meaning of community” like the one Lucy had built in Chinatown. Hua read from his book, hosted a community zine swap and, naturally, hosted a 3-point shooting contest at Columbus Park across the street. “It was such a weird, beautiful afternoon,” he said.
I asked Lucy how she felt about the support she’s seen from both her local Chinatown customers and the larger literary community. She takes a breath, as if the memories of the last two years were running through her mind simultaneously. “It's blown my mind, because I didn't know what I was doing. I opened this place and I was a little 27-year-old with this utopian view that bookstores are important,” she said. “Every day I'm like, I have no idea how the fuck I'm still here.”
After the fire, Lucy hesitated to ask for help. “I was nervous even posting a GoFundMe page,” she said. But when she put the word out that Yu & Me Books was in dire straits, the community that Lucy had built through books rallied to the cause. Marquee authors like Min Jin Lee, Celeste Ng, and Delia Cai as well as actor Simu Liu threw their support behind the fundraiser and in the end Lucy was able to raise $368,000, more than doubling her original goal.
Yu & Me Books reopened their doors on Mulberry Street a week ago and the line of locals, authors, friends and well-wishers ran out into the sidewalk, a testament to what a fixture the shop had become in such a short time. The mood was celebratory, and Lucy was able to soak it all in. “The love and support for the store still blows my mind,” she says. “I am huge fans of some of these incredible authors that advocate for the store all the time. And they wouldn't be doing that if they didn't feel a sense of home here too.”