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At 27 years old, Lucy Yu is in her second career and living out what she originally planned to be her retirement goal. She’s the owner of Yu and Me Books, New York City’s first Asian American woman-owned bookstore located in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
Yu is a chemical engineer by training and, until recently, worked as a supply chain manager for a food company. In 2021, however, spurred by burnout and finding solace in books, she decided to pursue a lifelong “pipe dream” of opening a bookstore — one that featured works from Asian Americans, authors of color, immigrants and people from marginalized communities.
One night over wine, she Googled “how to run a bookstore” and a few hours later found herself with the outline of a business plan. She raised nearly $16,000 through GoFundMe and poured her life savings into rent, overhead costs and the beginning of her inventory.
By December, Yu and Me Books opened to the public, and in February, Yu quit her day job to focus on running the bookstore full-time. “I just took a shot and hoped it would turn out for the best,” she says.
Yu shared with CNBC Make It the biggest lessons she’s learned throughout a year of becoming a business owner, plus her best book recommendations.
I’m going to make mistakes. That’s for sure. So learning to be less hard on myself has been a big learning curve, but also vital for me to keep a sustainable business going. If I dwell on the small things, even some of the big things, I have to remind myself: Mistakes are bound to happen. I’ve learned to roll with the punches a little more and give myself some breathing room, which is a good life skill in general.
There are days when I feel I’m at a total loss for what I’m doing. I really don’t have much experience. I don’t know what it’s like to be in the publishing world. And it’s my first time owning a business, especially a bookstore. So I can feel just really defeated at times.
But the motivation I’ve gotten is through the love and support from my friends who tell me: Look at what you’ve created out of a Google search. They’ve really lifted me up when I’ve been down.
Be prepared, but don’t let that preparation stifle a leap of faith. My last manager said I had to be a little more open to ambiguity, and so I took that to heart. There’s no way you can predict everything.
While creating my business plan, I called a couple different bookstores for guidance and heard from Noelle Santos of the Lit. Bar in the Bronx. I just asked her basic questions about business insurance, and she was so immediately friendly and said, “if you ever need anything, let me know.”
Emma Straub from Books Are Magic in Brooklyn reached out to me pretty early on in my GoFundMe campaign. She showed up on my opening day with her kids. She owns a bookstore — she doesn’t need books from a different bookstore! But the amount of love she brought to me before she even knew me to show her support was above and beyond.
And the community in Chinatown is phenomenal. It’s the the most I’ve felt at home in a neighborhood living in New York City. Every shop owner shows up for each other. I’ll go to Uncle Lou, a new Cantonese restaurant, during the day. Wilson Tang, who owns Nom Wah Tea Parlor, comes in with his kids all the time. And all the community organizers of groups like Welcome to Chinatown and Send Chinatown Love — the way they show up for each other throughout the community is something I’ve really never seen before.
I hope to extend the store’s reach beyond the community in New York, host book clubs, and make it more of a community event space. I’m working on a liquor license so we can stay open later on the weekends and people can hang out.
But I honestly don’t think past two weeks, which is not ideal for a business owner. But I think with all the unpredictability of everything we’ve experienced in the last three years, you can’t really predict anything. And if I can make it past two weeks, and it’s a really positive, awesome experience, I can do it again two weeks after that.
I have around 1,700 titles, and I handpick all of them myself, so I definitely have some blind spots and titles that are missing that I’m working on.
I peruse a lot of Bookstagram. I’m not kidding, these book Instagrammers are out here doing amazing work presenting titles that are not always at the top of big lists. I spend a lot of time on StoryGraph, an app with wonderful recommendations that isn’t owned by Amazon. I spend a lot of time researching and creating my lists every week.