Meet Yu and Me Books, the first Asian American, women-owned bookstore in Manhattan

Meet Yu and Me Books, the first Asian American, women-owned bookstore in Manhattan
Source: Mengwen Cao for The Washington Post

Of all of the many places to buy books in New York City, there’s nowhere quite like an independent bookstore. Crowded shelves covered in books from all kinds of publishers, local New Yorkers browsing titles for their next great read, the scent of stationary melding with the smells of the city as newcomers emerge from the streets outside. Bookstores in New York are a dime a dozen – even in the internet age – and enjoying a leisurely visit is a must if you’re exploring what the city has to offer.

One New York City bookstore, though, has recently opened and addresses the systemic issues of representation in literature. Even in such a diverse city, most books on the market are written by white authors. In fact, 95% of fiction published over the past 70 years was written by white authors. However, New Yorker Lucy Yu set out to try to remedy this issue with Yu and Me Books, an independent bookstore, cafe and bar she opened on December 11 of 2021.

What’s different about Yu and Me Books?

Among the many bookstores in New York City, Yu and Me Books stands out as the first Asian-American (AAPI) woman-owned bookstore focusing on diversity. Located on Mulberry Street in Chinatown, Yu sought to open a store that showcases AAPI and immigrant stories.

As an Asian American woman, Yu wanted “to create a home that [she] never found in a bookstore growing up.” Her store reflects the stories of the Asian immigrants of the area by focusing “on the strong, diverse voices of our community.”

Yu and Me received a lot of help in its launch from people all over the world who wanted to see Yu’s dream fully realized. She launched a GoFundMe for Yu and Me Books in May of 2021. As of January 2022, the campaign has received donations from 290 people adding up to over US$17,000.

On her GoFundMe page, Yu explains, “My heart is broken knowing that someone who looks like me is being attacked, and in the last year, I’ve felt the fear of leaving my home to run errands while looking out every which way to make sure I could get to my destination safely. The world around us has felt terribly unsafe, but a safe place that I’ve found is delving into the worlds written by those who also look like me and have articulated what it is like to feel like me.

“I’ve also learned so much from reading from perspectives different from mine, and I learn more and more every day diversifying my own reading. I want to share those perspectives with everyone else and to show the complicated emotions of being proudly me yet the fear that is and always will be lurking behind my confidence,” Yu continues, referring to the recent hate toward Asian American communities which has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regarding the success of her GoFundMe page, Yu was surprised by all of the support she received. “I hadn’t really expected much at all, I thought there were going to be just a few donations from my close friends!” Yu says. “The support and messages that I’ve received have meant so much to me and really kept me going to push this dream faster into reality. The support really has meant the world to me.”

As for her bookstore’s location, Chinatown wasn’t always on Yu’s mind. “I had looked for about 4-5 months for a retail space because I wanted it to encompass the vision I imagined for the space,” Yu explains. “I looked in East Village and LES at first, and my partner, Matt, actually mentioned that I look around Chinatown because he knew how much Chinatown in Los Angeles meant to me growing up and how much it would mean to the community.

“I had always felt at home in any Chinatown, and it was where I could find a common thread with my mother growing up. Once I found this space on 44 Mulberry – I fell in love with it. The first day I signed my lease, my neighbor (the owner at Tasty Dumpling) came over with his daughter and gave me a huge box of the most delicious dumplings to welcome me to the neighborhood, and I knew it was the best choice I could’ve made.”

More about the founder, Lucy Yu

Prior to this venture, Yu didn’t have much business experience with books. “I was a chemical engineer and supply chain manager before opening up my own store,” Yu explains regarding her background. “Definitely very different from a standard path, so I’ve had to learn a lot along the way on my own.

However, Yu’s love of books goes back to her childhood. “I was always an avid reader, and as an only child, books became some of my close friends growing up,” she remembers. “I always had a strong fondness towards reading books and hearing stories.”

She named Yu and Me, partially for the pun, but also because the store’s initials are also Yu’s mother’s initials, bringing it all the more close to her heart.

Opening Yu and Me has come with its challenges. “Especially expanding to a cafe and bar, it can sometimes feel like running three small businesses, and I definitely didn’t account for all the paperwork and permits that come with that process,” explains Yu. “But what has surprised me is being able to share stories so freely with customers that come in and being able to welcome them into their second home.

“When I was starting to put together this business plan, I had no idea how it was going to go – but the response has been extraordinary. It warms my heart to know that people share the same dream as I do to see diverse stories shared.”

Discovering new things

Yu offered readers some recommendations for book lovers coming into her shop. Min Jin Lee, Yaa Gyasi, Hanya Yanagihara [and] Ruth Ozeki are some of her top picks for authors you’ll find in her shop. Though, she also says, “I have so many – it’s so tough to choose!”

She’s also been able to discover new books while running her store. “That is my favorite part of my job,” she says. “I get to do research and read about so many books that don’t get to the frontlist but deserve to be heard. I also have a range of Indigenous voices and stories as well, something that I think should be much more prevalent.”

In a city home to over eight million people, local businesses like Yu and Me and other new spaces are opening up to create an inclusive community and a place to feel at home. With the help of the New York community and supportive people everywhere, this bookstore became a reality. So, if you’re ever in the neighborhood, “come stop in for a cozy home that welcomes you, too.”

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