Inside Yu and Me Books, Manhattan’s first Asian American woman-owned bookstore/café.
Last Saturday was a good day for New York City. It was a little rainy and overcast—the perfect day to browse the shelves of a bookstore. It was the day Yu and Me Books opened on 44 Mulberry Street, at the core of New York City’s Chinatown. Despite the drizzle, patrons lined up outside to welcome the bookshop into the world.
A new indie opening is cause for plenty of excitement, but Yu and Me Books is also the first of its kind: an Asian American woman-owned bookstore/cafe/bar in Manhattan. It’ll fill a much-needed gap in the literary industry, with a focus on the diverse voices of our community, on immigrant stories in particular.
When I asked owner Lucy Yu about her decision to embark on this journey—now, in the midst of a pandemic, on the heels of so much anti-Asian hatred—she said:
“It has always been a dream of mine to open up my own bookstore. Throughout all the difficulty we have all experienced in the last two years, reading and sharing stories has always kept me going—they have always reminded me that we are not alone even when I felt my loneliest. I think so many people were itching for a community space and a home outside of their homes to feel connected to each other and I wanted to connect people with stories that make them feel seen. I thought having the physical space was the perfect combination of all the things I was looking for and was hoping others wanted the same.”
In addition to being a delightful pun, the name is also a tribute to Lucy Yu’s mother, whose initials are also YM. On her GoFundMe page, which she launched earlier this year, Lucy Yu said she hopes to “showcase the stories and love in different languages that have been passed down for generations.” In our email exchanges, she elaborated:
“My mom raised me by herself after immigrating here from China, and I can only imagine how difficult it was for her to raise a child in a country foreign to her and seeing her child grow up in a culture that she’s never experienced before. One way we always did connect was going to Chinatown in Los Angeles every Sunday for art classes, and we would eat there all day, go to all the local supermarkets, and she would be able to speak Mandarin the whole day. We found ways to communicate without having to directly speak to each other, and found common ground between our lives through our shared Sundays together. I have so much love for Chinatown and how much it allowed me to increase my connection to my mother.”
Inside, under the warm glow of string lights that run above the shelves like halos, readers will find both new and gently used titles, including a few of the owner’s all-time favorites: Fatima Farheen Mizra’s A Place for Us, Min Jin Lee’s Pachinko, Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. There is a counter that will soon serve coffee and tea and (most importantly!) snacks like red bean buns. Behind that, visitors will be delighted to find a giant illustration of a Beagle, with lettering that reads: EMPLOYEE OF THE MONTH. (A little digging on the @yuandmebooks Instagram page reveals that her name is Odie, and she will surely be sniffing around the shop.) There’s also a room towards the back, just big enough for two comfortable armchairs—the perfect spot for curling up with a book you’ve just discovered or for catching up with an old pal.
At the heart of the shop, there is a special shelf, dedicated to Lucy Yu’s good friend, James Macdonald, who passed away this year.
“He meant so much to me and I wanted the shelves to represent who he was, someone who was incredibly detail oriented and was hungry to learn. He was very technical but also incredibly creative and cared about all those around him. He wanted to learn about every subject out there and was such an avid reader—he truly never stopped adding titles to his TBR pile. We had a book club together before he passed and two of our favorite books we read together were A Little Life and East of Eden so I always have a special place in my heart for him when I see those titles.”
Last weekend, I (and so, so many other visitors) had the joy of seeing what an inviting place Lucy Yu has created. She greeted each customer personally at the register, chatting effortlessly with readers about their choices. (I picked up Kat Chow’s Seeing Ghosts, and Lucy remarked that I had just missed the author herself!) And every time someone new stepped up, an incredible thing happened. We could all barely contain our own stories. We were lifetime New Yorkers. We had recently moved to the area. We were undergrads at NYU, and a professor had told us about this momentous groundbreaking. We were all so stoked about the shop opening. We had been waiting for this. We felt at home here.
Here’s something readers might not know about 44 Mulberry Street: it used to be a funeral supply store. (Lucy kept the old sign, with the Chinese characters, on the door as a tribute.) It feels fitting that this building, in a way, sits at the edge of this life and the next. It houses used books looking for new homes. It is filled with stories about characters starting over. It feels fitting that this building should bear witness to this new era of storytelling, these conversations, this rebirth, this place teeming with new life.