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Lucy Yu’s Thriving New York Bookstore Burned Down. How Can She Rebuild Without Burning Out?

For Lucy Yu, who runs what’s believed to be New York City’s first Asian American woman-owned bookstore, losing her brick-and-mortar business was akin to losing a child. But since 4 July of this year, when a blaze engulfed the Chinatown building that housed Yu & Me Books, the 29-year-old has had little time to process her grief.

Within hours of the blaze, she shifted into rebuild mode: right after firefighters brought the fire under control, Yu and a friend ran into the store and hauled inventory into plastic bags and tarps. They salvaged a couple thousand books from the wreckage, just under half of the collection. The effort left Yu coughing and short of breath for the next two weeks.

“I don’t know how anyone gets through this without hitting dark times of depression and anxiety,” she said. “My heart got heavy and my body got heavy. You cannot rationalize heartbreak.”

Three years before the fire, Yu leased a former funeral supply shop on Mulberry Street to realize her childhood dream of opening a bookstore. She was going to be selective about the voices she spotlighted, focusing on immigrants and writers of color, authors whose works tended to be relegated to the back shelves of mainstream bookstores. “I felt like they deserved a multitude of shelves to hold them, and as big of a space as I was capable of giving them,” said Yu, who grew up in Los Angeles and was, until recently, a supply chain manager for a food company. With $20,000 in savings and $16,000 in donations, she built a bar and cafe, covered the space’s turquoise walls with Japanese woodblock prints, and purchased more than a thousand volumes.

More than a leading purveyor of underrepresented literary voices, Yu & Me Books quickly became a refuge for a community targeted by acute racial violence during the pandemic. Yu was hosting open mics and book signings with award-winning writers like Ocean Vuong and Sayaka Murata, and selling upwards of 100 books a day – beating her projected daily sales of 12 books, which she’d initially figured she’d need to break even. When the business became profitable after just four months, Yu quit her day job and soon was able to employ 10 others. “I’m thankful every single day to have the incredibly talented, logistically savvy and big-hearted people on my team that give so much more to the store and community outside of just bookselling,” she said.

Just as the bookstore business was bouncing back from the lockdown era, with sales during the first half of 2023 6.9% higher than figures from the previous year, Yu found herself back at square one.

The blaze destroyed thousands of books and equipment worth roughly $60,000, Yu said. The building sustained heavy fire and water damage, requiring a costly gut renovation that typically takes a year to complete, but more when the permit approval process and supply chain delays are factored in.

Yu is determined to reopen by early next year, and an outpouring of community support has allowed her to fast-track recovery efforts. An online fundraiser brought in $360,000 just days after the fire, including significant contributions from author Celeste Ng and actor Simu Liu. Yu used the funds to retain her staff, pay insurance deductibles and replace damaged inventory. In September, she opened a pop-up in the Market Line, a bustling underground bazaar on the Lower East Side. The temporary space holds more than 2,000 books, about half of the store’s pre-fire inventory. Yu also planned out a fall calendar, with book launches, book clubs and a drag story hour. “To see the amount of community support for what I think is one of the tiniest bookstores I’ve ever been to is so heartwarming,” she said. “I don’t really know how to process it.”

Overall revenue, though, has dropped by more than a third since the fire, Yu estimated. Without a bar at her pop-up, Yu’s business is losing upward of 15% of the earnings that coffee and alcohol brought in during busy months. Yu & Me Books has an e-commerce partnership with Bookshop.org, an online indie books marketplace, but she still relies on foot traffic since in-store purchases constitute roughly 95% of total sales.

The breakneck pace of the pop-up launch, in tandem with reviving the original store, has taken an immense psychological toll. “One of the hardest projects of my life was opening this bookstore, and now I have to do it three times,” she said, adding that she’s been dealing with high blood pressure.

For Yu and her team, one of the biggest challenges has been prioritizing their physical and mental health. Most of her employees have a second or third job, Yu said, and many skimp on sleep and meals. They’re a close-knit group, and often bring breakfast and coffee for one another. “The logistics are not going to be what breaks us,” she said. “Burnout is.”

The Guardian asked three experts to consider Yu’s predicament and share their advice.

Asahi Pompey

Global head of corporate engagement and president of the Goldman Sachs Foundation, and leader of Goldman Sachs’s 10,000 Small Businesses program

A three-part playbook would be helpful for Yu. The first step is modeling various scenarios for the business to make sure that she can attain the scale and the profitability she wants. That could be returning to the Mulberry Street location, continuing with the pop-up model that she’s doing, or even going for some sort of “no physical bricks and mortar” option.

Step two is to shop those scenarios against her ethos and mission to find the best fit. Then, the last step is building a road map and a timeline for execution.

Being a small business owner can be a lonely experience. It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s important for Yu to remember that she can’t pour from an empty cup, so she should pace herself and lean on her team. Also, people want to help but sometimes just don’t know how: Yu can give her supporters opportunities to be engaged with the business, like having a community day around boxing up or going through inventory. Hosting readings for Asian authors at other Chinatown businesses is another way to engage the community because small business owners as a group tend to stick together.

Sarah McNally

Founder of McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore chain with five locations in New York City

The whole joy of bookselling is that you’re really part of a team and you’re in it together. I’ve had the same two people working with me for 18 years. We all have different skills and ways of handling stress – getting a pulse on your staff is crucial for long-term growth. Within my team, some people really thrive with change and figuring out new systems, while others function better with maintaining pre-existing systems. Yu has to know the strengths of her team members so they can work well through this transitional period. She should know that just because she’s finding change difficult doesn’t mean she’s not an amazing bookseller.

Losing your first store – or any store – is heartbreaking. But one of my big life goals is to make bookselling a viable and rewarding career for people. I’ve got so many stores now that I’m not as sentimental about the first one. Now I feel like McNally Jackson has become a community: there are people who have made their careers here, and I’m keeping it alive not just for me but for all the people I work with. Yu & Me is similarly community-focused. So it helps to be really goal-oriented; it’s not just sentimental anymore.

Shane Parrish

Curator of the Farnam Street blog and author of Clear Thinking: Turning Ordinary Moments into Extraordinary Results

Emails can be an effective way to drive traffic to the temporary store. Yu can start by collecting the emails of everyone who buys a book on site or who RSVPs to an event, so if she sees a parent coming to a children’s event, for example, she can later market to them a new book on parenthood. Another angle is having authors market to their audience events at Yu & Me, and converting their audience to Yu’s audience. If she does that over and over for the next six months she can potentially accrue 10,000 people on her email list and start building events around that.

It’s important that Yu thinks about how she can make her space a destination: how can she make the experience of visiting the pop-up shareable, something people are going to be able to take pictures of? One option I’ve seen that’s super viable is having children’s stories read on Saturdays.

The choice

Pompey’s advice about collaborating with Chinatown locals and business owners in order to rebuild her store resonated with Yu. “I think this is brilliant, grounding and totally aligned with the way I’ve structured Yu & Me Books,” she said. Yu felt validated by the three-part modeling and budgeting playbook that Pompey laid out. The road map, timeline for execution and P&L breakdowns are strategies that she has already adopted to help structure her forthcoming rebuild.

Yu also appreciated Pompey’s reminder that, while running a small business is not for the faint of heart, she “can’t pour from an empty cup”. Taking care of herself is a priority. “I struggle with the same things that others in my community do – fear of failure, difficulties asking for help – which we’re constantly working to unlearn,” she said.

“This is an excellent opportunity for me to rework some of these behaviors into healthier habits that not only will help myself and my team but also my business,” Yu said, pointing out that she needs to see that reaching out to the people who love her bookstore and ask for support is not burdensome, but uplifting. “To rebalance a manageable work structure while engaging fiercely in community is the optimal solution,” she said. “I just had to take a step back to see it.”

Source: The Guardian