Shop Talk

Shop Talk with Lucy Yu of Yu & Me Books

Lucy Yu is the founder and owner of Yu & Me Books, a “bookstore / café / bar” that focuses on the stories of immigrants and people of color. Yu & Me, which is based in Chinatown, Manhattan, NY, originally opened its doors in December 2021, and reopened in January 2024 after a fire. You can follow the bookstore on Instagram.

Tell me what led you to become a bookseller.

I believe books are the gateway to understanding experiences deeper outside of our own and they lead to true human connection. I’ve always gravitated towards literature because I’ve always been curious about people. During the pandemic, I feel that we all were restrained to just glimpses of connection which were  fabricated by technology but left us aching for the real thing. I was hoping I wasn’t the only one that desired that, so I started to build out Yu & Me Books to create a community bookstore home to encompass all these intersectional ideals I wanted. It turns out I wasn’t the only one and now I’ve been a bookseller for over 2 years!

What role has literature (and seeing yourself represented in it, or not) played in your life?

Literature has been a pillar in my life and a structure I continue to hold onto when I’m feeling untethered. It’s grounding to read shared and new experiences in others because it fills me with the richness of existence. Without it, I would only live in the small bubble of my own world and I don’t want to be limited to that perspective. Reading a diverse spread of books has always challenged my brain to imagine more, rethink my own blind spots, and adjust to the ever changing world around me.   

What do you see as the role of bookstores and booksellers in your community?

We are all part of an ecosystem together, giving and receiving new information to those we are surrounded by. Books are portals and we are constantly stretching what we know from engaging in new discussions of varying interests in our community. Bookstores, booksellers, and communities are intertwined in this push and pull of working together to understand the world around us and how we all fit in it.

What’s the most enjoyable and/or rewarding aspect of owning a bookstore for you?

The people, always. As we’re all managing the peak of existentialism through our shared grief from the pandemic and grappling with re-engaging with the world, the feeling of loneliness and isolation continues. But we are never alone in our grief or experiences. The more we are able to share that with each other, the more we are reminded of the joys of existence as well. By creating the bookstore, I feel like I’ve somehow created a touchpoint of hope for joy and connection. Through the stories we have on our shelves, we’ve created a safety in being able to share our stories with each other (usually over a drink). What more can you ask for in this life?

Yu & Me Books suffered extensive damage from a fire on July 4, 2023. Can you talk about the journey to rebuild and return to brick-and-mortar operation after last year’s setback?

I am absolutely still processing all of it. Immediately when the fire happened and after, my brain focused mostly on the logistics of taking care of my team, a rebuilding timeline, and trying to move as fast as possible back to our original home. I think it’s only now that I’ve really processed the grief that comes with losing the first version of my business and the person I was when I built it the first time.

After the fire, we had a temporary pop up location from September to the end of the year (in 2023) at the Market Line before reopening in our original location at the end of January this year. Opening the store the first time was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life, and I never thought I would have to do it 3 times in total. I had to confront my worst fear of my business / baby being destroyed and it gave me the ultimate test of understanding how much this dream really meant to me. The fact that giving up was never an option gave me a clear answer of how seriously I took this dream. I wouldn’t be standing here without our incredible community, helping us every day and believing in us when we were too tired to believe in ourselves. It shattered my faux reality of needing to be hyper-independent to be successful in this life. The outpouring of love and support from close friends, family, and strangers gave me a reason to believe in the beauty of being able to rely on others and ask for help. Something I have to remind myself every day to believe in still.

It’s been a bittersweet journey, filled with maximum love, grief, joy, exhaustion, pain, and hope. Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Bookstores are more than just places for books; they provide gathering spaces for people. How has the local community received and supported your bookstore? Tell me about your favorite memory of Yu & Me books being a hub for the community.

We owe our continued existence to our community and the local community. Being a new business in Chinatown, it was of utmost importance for me to hear what Chinatown residents needed and try my best to provide what they were missing. Their needs constantly change, and so must we.

While we were shut down during the fire, I was so scared to ask for help but so many people didn’t even wait for us to ask. Some incredible fundraisers were thrown by others to raise money for Yu & Me Books and it still makes me emotional to think about it. Archestratus Books hosted a bake sale fundraiser for us; Astoria Bookshop raised money from their own book sales to support us; Books Are Magic fundraised for us as well, in addition to letting us use their space for events; and Book Club Bar let us host our book clubs there. Bánh by Lauren, which did a pop-up on almost all of our opening days and have become some of my closest friends, co-hosted a pop-up with us at Nudibranch in the East Village to raise money for the store the week after the fire. There were so many local fundraisers and others that emailed us from the Bay Area. The Rockwood Music Hall fundraiser was hosted by the band the Reflections, who have performed multiple times at our in-store open mic nights, hosted by author Ed Lin, and they put together an incredible lineup of artists to raise money for us.

The Hua Hsu paperback launch and fundraiser is one of the most memorable events for me. We hosted it the week before we opened our temporary pop up at the Market Line. 500 people showed up on the rooftop of New Design High School, a wonderful school in the Lower East Side that we’ve been partnering with for over a year. We had authors Ly Tran, Hannah Bae, Delia Cai, and Mary HK Choi read original work about Yu & Me Books and other bookstores they love, with Chanel Miller joining Hua as a conversation partner afterward. So many other small businesses and artists—including Win Son, Lam Thuy Vo, Naomi Otsu, Maaari, Good Fight, Randall Park, and Andrew Kuo—all donated their time and resources for a raffle and auction in conjunction with the event. Hua put together an incredible zine of authors and artists sharing their experiences of going to bookstores. He paid for all of it out of pocket and sold it at the event, with all proceeds going to Yu & Me. I couldn’t believe the amount of support we had just looking out at a massive crowd of people coming together for literature.

Tell me about a bookstore or literary community space that has inspired you—or, if you created your own because you saw a need, what did you imagine before founding Yu & Me?

I imagined a very small-scale experience of being able to put a smile on someone’s face when they walked in. I thought that if I could nail it in a recommendation to someone searching for something in their life, that would already be a successful day for me. But what that small act really encompasses is the need for others to understand us and the joy that comes when they do. And what Yu & Me Books has become is more beautiful than my wildest imagination.

Tell me about a program or service your bookstore offers, something you love that makes it Yu & Me.

This may be too simple, but friendliness is something that I value very highly on our team. We are kind to everyone who enters and it’s a simple act but I do feel like having that intertwined with a retail experience allows for more space for comfortability. We take that quality seriously in all the events that we host as well. We are also engaged in constant change and remaining malleable to the fluctuating needs of our surrounding community. 

PC: Jacques Morel

You opened your bookstore during the coronavirus pandemic, in a time of increased anti-Asian racism and violence. How has that influenced the way you select books, curate author events, or advocate for Asian writers and readers?

I always wanted to represent a wide range of literature that included Asian-American authors and writers while showcasing the large variety of the diaspora. Unfortunately, anti-Asian racism and violence is not novel (i.e. Chinese Exclusion Act amongst many other examples) and so the books that I initially curated did not stem from the increase in awareness of these violent crimes that have been committed against us for generations. But these stories have always been important and are still important for everyone to know. 

I think because I am Asian-American, the bookstore was falsely labeled as an Asian-American bookstore, but we are a bookstore for everyone that just happens to showcase more books focused on immigrants and writers of color. It’s a bookstore that has great books which I think everyone should read. My advocacy for Asian writers started when I realized it was difficult for me to find books written by people that looked like me or my family. But once I started researching, I realized there is a rich reserve of stories that have always been shared but not necessarily spotlighted. That’s the gap I saw, and I hoped my bookstore would be able to give others more access to the wonderful works I was reading.

What’s on the horizon for you and your team in the coming months or year? What are you looking forward to? 

I’m looking forward to us restabilizing beyond survival. I feel like the most fortunate person to have the best team in the world and to be surrounded by incredible people that are so much better than me in so many aspects. We worked so hard last year to rebuild the store from the ground up. I’m looking forward to us finding more ways to enjoy life and to integrate more rest.

Black and Brown bookstore owners do the important work of curating, amplifying, and preserving the rich throughline of stories that feed us. They are vital members of our local and global communities. Where there is a movement, there are books. But who captures the stories of the booksellers themselves? In this column, SHOP TALK, profiling booksellers, Dara Mathis turns the lens onto Black and Brown bookstores around the world, honoring the journeys that bring them to our neighborhoods.

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Dara T. Mathis is a nonfiction writer and reporter whose writing has appeared in the Atlantic, the New York Times, the Week, and other places. Her work often examines motherhood, Black liberation movements, and the ways we make home where we are. She resides with her husband and three children in Maryland.