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Yu and Me Books returns to Manhattan’s Chinatown after fire

Alexandra Adelina Nita

Yu and Me Books, New York City’s only woman-owned Asian American bookstore, reopened its original 44 Mulberry Street location on Jan. 28.

The bookstore’s doors first opened in Dec. 2021 after owner Lucy Yu crowdfunded $18,000 in two months to lease the space, formerly a funeral supply store. 

Then tragedy struck last year. The storefront sat empty for six months after a fire on July 4 broke out in the apartment above, claiming the life of Frank Yee, 76, a decades-long member of the local community and a decorated Vietnam War veteran.

New Yorkers rallied to Yu’s support once again. Her GoFundMe campaign’s goal of $150,000 was met with over double that amount. 

The money allowed Yu to continue paying her employees’ wages and benefits, open a temporary pop-up in the Lower East Side food hall The Market Line, restock decimated shelves and repair a building that firefighting efforts had left flooded. She was even able to make improvements—a bulky countertop disappeared to make way for more open space with additional seating.

Yu took an unconventional path to become an independent bookseller. She was raised in west Los Angeles by Yuehua Meng—a Chinese immigrant, single mother and lab technician who inspired Yu to pursue science. Yu first worked as a chemical engineer, a line cook and a supply chain manager. 

As Yu harbored a dream of opening the bookstore, she assumed it would only happen after retiring.

“I really wanted to have a place where the whole store was dedicated to immigrant stories, writers of color, that was not confined to one shelf or one month,” she told Now This News.

 Yu added, “It’s a lot of work to consistently prove to the industry that there’s a huge market and huge audience hungry for these works,” an unsurprising reality when the publishing industry is overwhelmingly white.

After burning out from 80-hour work weeks while also mourning the death of her close friend, James MacDonald, Yu felt inspired to open a business. 

“It really shook my world and my idea of time,” Yu said in an interview with the National Academy of Engineering. “I had always wanted to open a bookstore—it was a dream of mine. I figured why not do it now?”

Yu estimated that she needed to sell at least 12 books a day to break even. Soon, she was selling over a hundred, making the store profitable within four months and expanding its employees to 10.

Yu and Me is one of more than 300 independent bookstores that opened across the United States in the last few years. Their growth comes despite multiple challenges, including lockdowns at the beginning of the pandemic, rising storefront rents, Amazon’s monopoly on the industry and a wave of conservative censorship.

In NYC, the growth of independent booksellers may not herald a new era but a return to tradition. 

In the 1950s, Manhattan alone was home to 386 bookstores, which had dwindled to 80 by 2015. Six blocks worth of 4th Avenue between Union Square and Astor Place were formerly dubbed “Book Row” for the second-hand bookstores that lined them.

The city currently has at least 117 independent bookstores spread across the five boroughs, though the spread is unequal. 

For example, Bronx bookseller The Lit. Bar—whose founder Noëlle Santos advised Yu—was the only general-interest bookstore serving the borough’s estimated population of 1.3 million from 2019 until 2022.

Though they likely never met, Yu and Ryan Raffaelli, Associate Professor at Harvard Business School, seem to be in agreement over what will determine the survival of NYC

independent bookstores. Raffaelli published a whitepaper using independent bookstores as a case study of how physical stores can thrive in a digital economy, citing “building a strong connection to local community values and attaching themselves to a broader movement to shop local,” as key to their success.

Alexandra Adelina Nita

Yu and Me is notable for its community events and partnerships, which most recently included a Lunar New Year pop-up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a raffle to support the Asian American and Pacific Islander-led nonprofit Soar over Hate’s Letter Writing For a Free Palestine event in addition to stocking products by small Asian American businesses like Kwohtations Cards and Year of the Tiger Records in store.

“I wanted to have a name that emphasized the conversations and communication I would love for people to have with each other in the store,” Yu said when explaining the store’s name to Penguin Random House. It also deliberately shares its initials with a vital member of Yu’s community—her mother.

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Alexandra Adelina Nita
Alexandra Adelina Nita, Graphics Editor
Alexandra Adelina Nita is the Graphics Editor for The Ticker.
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    DMAFeb 23, 2024 at 4:50 pm

    Hi, you cite for the proposition that there are “177” bookstores in the city, but that site says there are only 117 at current count. (Also, you link to one of the stores, not the landing page.)