The Reopening of Yu & Me Books is a Triumph of Community

By Chris Karnadi
February 6, 2024
Profiles

Just over six months after a fire consumed the store, Yu & Me Books has reopened their original Mulberry Street space in Manhattan’s Chinatown. On opening day, dozens of customers crowded into the small store and snuck around one another to purchase books as ‘80s pop hits played. The atmosphere felt like a housewarming as customers made their way to congratulate the owner Lucy Yu. A number of authors also dropped in throughout the day to sign books and add personal touches to the store’s stock.

The day was a triumph for owner Yu’s team, the local neighborhood, and the larger AAPI community who all played a part in making sure the business survived what could have ended its run as New York’s first Asian American woman-owned bookstore.

Yu vividly remembers going to the store the day of the fire and trying to rescue books as water leaked through the ceiling and smoke was in the air. She estimated that $50,000’s worth of books were damaged that day. Paired with an estimated year-long timeline to reopen and the lengthy wait to receive insurance money to pay for damages, Yu wasn’t sure Yu & Me Books was going to make it.

But before she could even ask other businesses, friends, and coworkers were already offering to help. “The list of offerings immediately superseded the list that I came up with myself,” Yu said over the phone.

Golden Diner, a nearby Chinatown restaurant who experienced a fire in 2021, helped Yu develop a realistic timeline, both to rebuild and to account for insurance. Welcome to Chinatown, a local nonprofit aimed at helping businesses in NYC’s Chinatown stay open, offered storage to hold the undamaged stock for when Yu & Me Books would reopen. The Market Line gave the bookstore a temporary pop-up space to bring in crucial revenue while the shop was still being rebuilt.

“It’s a small bookstore, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make an impact in a small way.” —Lucy Yu
Yu and her team also posted a GoFundMe to help with the costs of damaged stock, insurance deductibles, and salaries for employees. She posted an original asking amount of $150,000, but support quickly surpassed that amount as high profile figures like author Celeste Ng and actor Simu Liu brought attention to the campaign, which ultimately raised just under $370,000.

Through these efforts Yu & Me Books is back, and arguably better equipped. The fire destroyed the store, but also provided an opportunity to re-design the space to accommodate what Yu & Me Books wants to be: a community hub.

When the bookstore originally opened, Yu had few expectations. She estimated that she would need to sell at least 12 books a day to break even, but the store quickly exceeded that threshold and averaged around 100 books a day before the fire, according to The Guardian. Yu also didn’t expect the high demand for events at the store, including author readings, open mics, and the occasional plant-potting workshop.

For shop-regular Ray Buzeta, those events made the store into a source of community. “I think some of my best friends and the people who are closest to me in my life are people who I’ve met through the shop,” they said. “It’s nice to have ongoing relationships come from a third place like this.”

Though the original space wasn’t designed for events—a bulky countertop running the length of the store often separated authors and speakers from attendees—the fire meant that Yu and her team could reorient the space to their needs. The countertop is now at the back of the store and display books are on tables with wheels, meaning that most of the first floor can be cleared as needed. They also added a Murphy door, which hides a small reading room, and a finished basement with more inventory and additional seating for more introverted book readers.

“I’m hoping to bring people together and make us realize that individualism is actually hurting us in terms of fighting for collective justice and joy.” —Lucy Yu

“Barely six to seven months after [the fire], they’ve reopened and it’s even more open and welcoming now,” said Thiagu Sezhian, who went to college with Yu. “For Lucy, it’s obviously been extremely stressful, but she’s used it to make the store even better.”

Yu is hesitant to speak about the future of the store. She knows that she doesn’t want to ever ask for more money and that she wants to use the support that she’s been given to make sure the bookstore sticks around a long time and helps other businesses grow—especially those owned by AAPI folks and women. The impact of Yu & Me Books has been felt even outside of NYC. Narrative, a bookstore opening this year in Somerville, Massachusetts, named Yu & Me Books as a primary inspiration.

Yu also hopes that Yu & Me Books can provide a “sliver of joy” for everyone who walks through the door. “It’s a small bookstore, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t make an impact in a small way,” Yu said. “I’m hoping to bring people together and make us realize that individualism is actually hurting us in terms of fighting for collective justice and joy.”

Yu & Me Books has already been living up to that mission. It has regrown from the ashes of the fire through the hard work of a team dedicated to sharing good books. From that seed, the warming sunlight of their surrounding community’s support helped bear the fruit of a new chapter for the beloved bookstore.

—Chris Karnadi is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn, NY. They write features, fiction, and essays and can be found at chriskarnadi.com.

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