Earlier this month, authors Ly Tran and Qian Julie Wang waited in a line that stretched down Mulberry Street in New York City’s Chinatown. Along with dozens of other writers and readers, the friends were eager to attend the grand opening of a new neighborhood bookstore. When they finally made it inside, Tran said she “saw books flying off the shelves” as customers filled the bookstore, cafe and bar.
Pastry chef Lauren Tran of Bánh by Lauren had supplied sheets full of sweets, and the Asian American-owned brewery That Witch Ales You had donated growlers of coconut porter and a litchi red ale — although the bánh had been devoured by the time Tran and Wang made it inside the store. The evening’s turnout was all in celebration of Yu and Me Books, which is believed to be Chinatown’s first Asian American, woman-owned bookstore.
On Dec. 11, 27-year-old Lucy Yu — a chemical engineer by trade, most recently working as a supply chain manager — opened the bookstore, which she said she’s wished existed since she was a child. As violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities spiked during the pandemic, Yu felt her lifelong dream become more urgent, she said. With the opening of Yu and Me Books, Yu is hoping to create not only a bookstore, but a community space that centers Asian storytelling and specifically immigrant narratives.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Yu said she never saw a space full of stories that represented her and her family’s experiences. “There’s not a lack of books being written about immigrants” or by authors of color, she said, which she realized as she began researching what it would take to open her own bookstore. But those books were never “put at the forefront of a lot of the bookstores that I grew up with,” she added.
In early November, Yu and Me Books opened with a soft launch; the event featured poet and novelist Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai and memoirist Tran reading from their books “The Mountains Sing” and “House of Sticks,” respectively. Tran said that, like at the grand opening, readers and authors turned out for an event centered on food and stories — the reading began at a nearby restaurant and migrated over to Yu and Me Books.
“There are quite a lot of themes in my book. But one of them is the theme of storytelling and how we use storytelling as a means of survival,” said Tran, who also noted that she also never really saw herself reflected on bookstore shelves growing up. “The fact that Yu and Me Books is honoring that tradition of storytelling — it couldn’t have come at a more crucial time. It’s a salve on the open wounds that the community has suffered.”
Tran isn’t the only Asian woman author who has shown her support: Comic artist Wendy Xu, children’s author Vicky Wu, novelist and publisher Amy Le and cookbook author Vi Tran have all donated signed copies of their books to the store, according to Yu.
According to Jafreen Uddin, executive director of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the Asian American literary scene in New York City isn’t one marked by competition. “We’ve really embraced the idea of working together to create as diverse and wide-ranging a larger community as possible,” she said. “I think collectively, we’ve all realized and agreed that [competition] embraces a scarcity mind-set that none of us are comfortable with.”
Yu said that support “has been really amplified” in opening her bookstore: “I feel so grateful that all these writers and makers trust me to create this warm and welcoming space for them to work.”
In naming Yu and Me Books, Yu wasn’t only aiming for a playful pun on her last name, but to honor another writer — her mother, whose initials are “YM” — and the stories that are passed down between generations.
“We’ve gotten much closer as I’ve gotten older, but, especially growing up, I think we haven’t always found the best way to communicate with each other,” Yu said. But one thing Yu and her mother did always share in common was a love of books.
In fact, Yu said, both her grandmother and mother are writers. “Even though our language is not always the same and the ways that we communicate our knowledge is not the same, the love that we share is always through the stories that we share,” she said.
By giving her bookstore her mother’s initials, Yu also hoped to reference the way stories have been shared within immigrant communities. According to Uddin, the term “Asian American” was originally meant “to build political power by college students” in the 1970s. “As a group in America, we’re actually quite young,” she said. But Asian literary traditions “are classical in every sense of the word.”
Although classical literature is often equated with Western authors like Homer and Sophocles, Uddin emphasized that Asian literary and oral histories date back millennia — and that there is no single, all-encompassing Asian identity.
Tran agreed. “The AAPI identity — we say it all the time, but it’s often lumped into a monolith. And that monolith often ends up taking the face of East Asian identity,” she said. “One thing that I really appreciate Lucy doing is that she’s made it a point to showcase work by Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander authors.”
In part a response to the violence the Asian American community has faced in recent years, the bookstore is designed with the goals of building a center for the community and creating a space for conversation, Yu said.
The bookstore itself is laid out around a bar where guests can linger in the store, eating snacks and sipping drinks.
For Tran, the bookstore’s location is also a commitment to the Asian American community. “I think what’s really powerful is where Yu and Me Books is located, in the heart of Chinatown, which is such a place of community for Asian American immigrants resettling here in New York City,” she said. “I know for my family, which I write about, that was a place that we first went to in order to feel like we were a part of something when we first immigrated here.”
Yu hopes that, in time, the bookstore will become a community space not only for sharing books, but for sharing personal, and sometimes difficult, stories. She’s already planning a partnership with the Cosmos, an Asian woman-led self-care and mental health organization, for next year. “We’re trying to create a space” where “people come and talk about mental health within the Asian community,” Yu said.
And although Yu says she’s proud to be among the first Asian American woman bookstore owners in Manhattan, she hopes bookstore owners of all backgrounds will try to build more diversity into their shelves: “I think that’s really important to create a path forward” to “showcase stories that may not always be heard.”