How grief and burnout pushed this 27-year-old to follow her lifelong dream of opening a bookstore: 'This was a pipe dream'

Lucy Yu is the owner of Yu and Me Books in Manhattan's Chinatown.
Mel Hong

When Lucy Yu was 7 years old, she told her mom she wanted to retire and open a bookstore one day. She'd always loved reading and, as the only child raised primarily by her single mother who immigrated from China, turned to books as a source of comfort.

Now, at age 27, Yu is living that retirement dream as her full-time job. In December, she opened Yu and Me Books in Manhattan's Chinatown, New York City's first Asian American woman-owned bookstore that centers works from authors of color, immigrants and people from marginalized communities — a place Yu says she's always wanted to see but never found until she created it herself.

"This was a pipe dream," Yu tells CNBC Make It. "I didn't realize the space that I wanted for myself was also wanted by other people. That means so much to me."

Turning to books through grief and burnout

Yu is a chemical engineer by training and most recently worked as a supply chain manager for a food company. But in January 2021, she hit a wall. She was working 80-hour weeks, dealing with pandemic fatigue and was still grieving the loss of a good friend who died the year prior.

She decided to take three weeks of vacation — her entire PTO allotment for the year — at once.

"As someone who's struggled with depression and anxiety my whole life, making that decision was very rare for me," Yu says. "And all I did during that time was read two books a day. I felt like that was all that was giving me the healing and just space that I needed."

She realized that from the time she was young, "whenever I am in times of intense stress or anxiety, I always turn to books, because they give me such a sense of comfort going into other places and stories outside of mine."

Yu and Me Books, located in Manhattan's Chinatown, is New York City's first AAPI woman-owned bookstore.
Courtesy of subject

One night over wine, she fired up Google and began researching how to open a bookstore and putting ideas into a spreadsheet. "All of a sudden it was 2 a.m. and I had put together this outline" of a business plan, she says. In the following days and weeks, she chipped away at bringing it to life.

By May, she launched a GoFundMe crowdfunding page and raised nearly $16,000. She took those funds, along with her life savings, to rent out a space, cover overhead costs and build an inventory.

She opened Yu and Me Books in December 2021, a tribute to her mother's initials "YM."

Yu continued to work her day job until February, when she quit and began running the bookstore full-time. "I just took a shot and hoped it would turn out for the best," she says, "and I'm really excited that I'm self-employed now. I never thought that would be an option for me."

Yu and Me Books features stories by AAPI writers, immigrants, authors of color and members of marginalized communities.
Courtesy of subject

Her mother originally questioned why she'd quit her steady 9-to-5 to open a bookstore in the age of Amazon. But after the store officially opened, Yu says, her mother flew from California to New York, "and she stayed with me in the bookstore every day for three weeks, which was so wild, because Asian moms don't do that," Yu jokes.

"I think her perception of what the bookstore is and how much people were excited about it changed with her stay here," Yu adds.

A place for community

Yu jokes that most of what she knows about running a business has come from Google and YouTube. She also learned a lot by calling up other local bookstore owners, including Noelle Santos of The Lit. Bar in the Bronx, and Emma Straub of Brooklyn's Books are Magic.

Yu has also found a place within Manhattan's Chinatown, first as a resident and now as a business owner.

"The community in Chinatown is phenomenal," Yu says. "I think it's the the most I've felt at home in a neighborhood living in the city. And every shop owner shows up for each other," particularly as the pandemic has strained businesses due to financial hardship and Covid-fueled xenophobia.

Yu understands the importance of running her bookstore in a time of rising anti-Asian violence and discrimination. In addition to carrying around 1,700 handpicked titles that center AAPI and immigrant stories, Yu and Me Books hosts author talks, community readings and other events. The space has a coffee bar and reading nook, and Yu plans to host more book club events and expand the store's reach beyond New York City.

It's already become a destination for families of readers. Yu recalls a group of women who stopped by on Mother's Day — a daughter, mother and grandmother who browsed through books and shared their personal stories of experiencing discrimination.

"The mother came up to me as she was checking out and told me, 'We had a whole day planned out, but we just threw that out the window and hung out here. I don't think I've ever been able to have a conversation like that with my mother or my daughter, and you've created a space where we feel comfortable talking about it.'"

The exchange was powerful for Yu: "I know it's really hard to connect with our parents in that way, so hearing that made me so proud and emotional," she says. "If I could make one person feel that way, I think it's all worth it."

Check out:

How these millennial founders raised over $2 million to help Chinatown businesses stay open in NYC

Giving away 70,000 free meals in NYC’s Chinatown changed this bakery manager’s perspective on leadership

This founder built a company on $3,000—now it's a leading source for Asian American news

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Is the U.S. losing its Chinatowns?
Is the U.S. losing its Chinatowns?