When a devastating fire shuttered Yu & Me Books in New York City's Chinatown last summer, store owner Lucy Yu immediately sprung into action. Just two days after the blaze broke out in the residential unit above the store, causing significant smoke and water damage, Yu launched a GoFundMe to cover such expenses as paying staff wages, replacing damaged inventory, paying insurance deductibles, and setting up pop-ups—including one at the Essex Market in Lower Manhattan—while the store closed for several months of intensive repairs. Within days, the crowdfunding campaign was met with an outpouring of support from readers, community members, and authors such as Min Jin Lee and Celeste Ng.
Last week, Yu & Me Books finally reopened to the public. Yu and her team hosted a grand reopening on January 28, celebrating the store's return to its Mulberry Street location. PW spoke with Yu about the hard work and community support that went into the store's triumphant return—and what lies ahead. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Can you describe the store’s rebuilding process? What needed to be done, and what was your role throughout the process?
It's tough to encompass the many months of to-do lists in a succinct way but I had three priorities after the fire. First was taking care of my employees. This was my top priority! Yu & Me Books would cease to exist without our incredible team and it's my responsibility to make sure they are taken care of. I told everyone on the team that my intention was to pay them for their average scheduled hours for up to three months after the fire while keeping their benefits.
Second was finding a temporary space. The day after the fire, I was told that repairs and renovations were estimated to take up to a year to complete. After I had a good cry, I could approach the next steps with a level head and knew a year was far too long for us to not exist in some form. I searched for both temporary spaces and pop-up options. The week after the fire, we hosted our first pop-up with the inventory we had saved, and continued popping up around the city after that.
Third was figuring out a longterm game plan to rebuild the store. Although we were given the estimate of a year for a complete rebuild, I knew I had the ability to shorten the timeline. Though I wasn't quite sure how at the time, I was confident that I would be able to find a better solution. Ultimately, we ended up reopening in January 2024, a full 5-6 months ahead of schedule.
My role through this entire process as the owner of Yu & Me Books was to remain calm as best I could while being fully transparent and honest with my team about the current state and next steps, which included both immediate action items that needed to be addressed and a long term plan for the future. The most difficult part was that I didn't always have a longterm plan, which is completely normal and understandable, especially after such a traumatic event. I just needed to make sure that I was transparent about my process of figuring everything out with the people around me, so that we could figure out how to best support each other. I absolutely tried my best here, but that doesn't mean I haven't learned many things that I can and have improved on in terms of my communication throughout this process. I learned so much throughout this process, and the most important lesson was learning how to lean on my team more.
What kind of physical presence did the store maintain during the rebuild? You temporarily relocated and also hosted pop-ups. Can you talk a bit about both? And will the pop-ups continue moving forward?
Yu & Me Books had multiple pop-ups from July to December 2023 and also relocated to a temporary space at the Market Line, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, from September to December. Initially, I thought about sustaining on just pop-ups until the store was rebuilt, but the logistics of moving books from place to place in NYC was too challenging—especially if the rebuild was going to take a full year. Owning a small business in NYC is particularly challenging, especially if you don't have a car! That's when I prioritized finding a longer term option, and was so grateful to the folks at the Market Line for offering us a space in a time of dire need. It was so important to us to maintain our role as a community space for our regulars and the community at large. What was beautiful about our time at the Market Line was that we found a way to expand and extend our community even further, which warmed all of our hearts during an especially difficult time of transition for the bookstore.
Pop-ups and external events have always been a part of how we run our business! It's equally important to remain flexible and to expand our community even further. Pop-ups are a wonderful way to introduce the literature we stock—made up of majority immigrant writers and writers of color—to different audiences and connect with new people outside of our neighborhood. This brings more exposure to the incredible literature that we are all excited about, and it brings more people to our store. The more people we bring in, the more people realize how incredible Chinatown is and how vital it is to New York City.
Shortly after the fire, you launched a GoFundMe campaign that swiftly more than doubled its goal. Were you surprised by the enthusiastic community response to Yu & Me’s hardship? And more broadly, what role do you think community plays in bookselling and a thriving bookselling business?
My processing of this entire period of my life will take time. I am still processing the incredible love and support that we received from the more than 6,800 people who donated to the store. That dollar amount does not even include my friends and community that helped me save books on the day of the fire, move books from location to location, dropped off food for me and my team, or cooked for me when I was too tired to do so myself. The people who I called when I was crying on the floor, too exhausted to get up, and those that texted me without any pressure for me to respond back. The many beautiful letters I received from people around the world who were touched enough by their experiences at the store that they felt compelled to make sure I knew that it was worth fighting for. The people and businesses that went above and beyond to fundraise or give us keys to their stores while we didn't have a home made me see how much the bookstore community has each other's backs.
I'm such a people pleaser that I worry I won't be able to repay everyone back. But I've realized mutual support is non-transactional and that the store would have never received this amount of support if it didn't give something to others to begin with. This whole experience has completely opened my eyes to the kindness that exists in the world, and it really gave me hope that even when everything crumbles, I do not need to bear it all alone. The only thing I can keep doing is spreading that kindness to everyone that walks through the door of our store.
I truly believe community is vital not only in bookselling, but for all small businesses. There is a humanness that we lose in e-commerce and declining person-to-person interactions. If we lean into those interactions and find deeper ways to know each other, I hope it will lead us to believe that we must fight for others just as we fight for ourselves. My role as a bookseller is the same as anyone else in a community: to try to listen to others, to share, to connect, and to find ways to take care of each other—which also includes taking care of ourselves.
There were also a host of fundraising events, including a book launch with Hua Hsu and a concert at Rockwood Music Hall, that helped support Yu & Me's recovery. How did those come about?
What is completely amazing is that these fundraisers were mostly hosted by others to support us, which makes me tear up every time I 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, cohosted 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 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 honestly still haven't been able to read the whole thing because it makes me so emotional, but I have it by my bedside for whenever I am ready.
Now that your brick-and-mortar is back, what do you have planned for the future? Any events, etc?
Events are definitely coming back! I've been in the thick of reopening logistics, but there's a lot of fun coming too. Our team has been working so hard to plan it all, and we can't wait to share all that we have lined up for you all!