79.7 F
New York
Saturday, July 20, 2024

How Yu & Me, a Popular Chinatown Bookstore, Rebuilt After a Fire

BusinessHow Yu & Me, a Popular Chinatown Bookstore, Rebuilt After a Fire

Lucy Yu wasn’t sure if she had smoke in her lungs or was having an anxiety attack. She needed fresh air.

Five days earlier, on the Fourth of July, she had raced out of her bookstore in Manhattan’s Chinatown as it filled with smoke. A fire had broken out in an upstairs apartment, threatening to destroy all she had built.

Now Ms. Yu was back, and had to face it. She had assembled a team of friends to pack up the books that weren’t damaged beyond repair and put them in storage. By the last bag, she had pain in her chest.

She walked outside and sat down on a stoop next door, as her friends comforted her and brought her water.

Her once-vibrant store, Yu & Me Books, needed a gut renovation to remove mold and smoke residue. The ceiling was caving in, the furniture she had built was damaged, and the speaker system she had installed was shot. A single bulb hung, emitting light; she and her friends had to use flashlights in the basement. They had salvaged a few thousand books, but more than 1,400 were ruined.

The bookstore was Ms. Yu’s first attempt at entrepreneurship, and she felt she had failed. She opened her store with about $45,000 in December 2021 as the neighborhood was rebounding from the pandemic shutdowns and reeling from a spate of anti-Asian attacks. It quickly became a literary hub that hosted first-time authors and held weekend bar nights, when bibliophiles sipped hard seltzers and wine. The store was profitable within four months.

All of that was up in the air now. Fire officials, seeing the damage, told her that it might take a year to reopen.

“It was the first time I cried — I just completely lost it,” Ms. Yu, then 28, said a few weeks after the fire in the first of a series of interviews. “It was such a roller coaster of emotions because I lost something that I poured everything into, which is something that I think at the time I didn’t even have the space or bandwidth to grieve.”

But Ms. Yu didn’t have the luxury to dwell on these feelings. New books came out every week, meaning each day was one when an author could choose another shop to host a talk or a shopper could defect to Amazon or Barnes & Noble. Without her brick-and-mortar location, and only a minuscule e-commerce operation, she had to get creative. It required soliciting financial lifelines and testing out new store concepts. It became her life.

It would take her 208 days — a little more than half the expected time — to restore her shop. In the process, she would find that elements of the bookstore wouldn’t be exactly the same as they were before and that neither was she. Opening her store a second time meant reinventing not only the business, but also herself.

She stood up from the stoop and got to work.

In the days after the fire, Ms. Yu had totaled her losses and expenses: She was out about $60,000 worth of inventory. The ceiling’s collapse destroyed the heating, cooling and ventilation system, so that needed replacing, too.

Initially she estimated she’d need $80,000 to rebuild, which didn’t include paying her nine employees, which she had resolved to do. A friend told her to be realistic and nearly double her estimate. She filed a claim with her insurance company, but knew she’d need funds sooner.

Ms. Yu thought about the crowdfunding site GoFundMe, but was hesitant. A few years earlier, she had used the platform to raise about $16,000 to start Yu & Me. What would people think when she said she needed their help again?

Her friend and colleague Kazumi Fish reminded her that Yu & Me had come to mean something to others as well.

Within a day, more than 2,400 people donated a total of $231,152 to Ms. Yu’s new GoFundMe campaign. (The campaign eventually raised $369,555.)

Donations came from the authors Celeste Ng and Vanessa Chan (each gave $5,000) and the dating app Coffee Meets Bagel (it poured in $2,000). Local bookstores donated, too. As did scores of people who gave just $10.

Ms. Yu stuck to her revised $150,000 budget, and set the extra money aside for future emergencies.

Before any rebuilding, she needed city approval for the work, such as the installation of plumbing and electricity. She worked with her landlord’s architect to seek permits quickly, and hired a contractor who explained the next steps.

After long days spent doing store inspections and talking to other entrepreneurs in Chinatown who had dealt with fires, she would return to her one-bedroom Brooklyn apartment, which was filled with mismatched furniture, books and records, and binge-watch home-improvement TV shows like “Hack My Home” and “Hoarder House Flippers.”

The shows taught her which colors clash and how to make a room feel bigger. Murphy bookshelves and nooks could create a homey feel. She sketched drawings to show her contractor.

“I wish I had known other people that had designed spaces,” Ms. Yu said. “But I was like, ‘This is just something I’m going to have to do.’ And that’s why HGTV was my resource during this time.”

By the fall, construction was in full swing at her cavernous store. The wires that hung from the ceiling were tucked and covered by drywall. The floors were stripped to their concrete base, and the walls in the basement had been torn away to expose the brick.

A month after the fire, the Market Line Food Hall, about a mile from her store, offered a basement spot for her business. It was only about three-quarters the size of her original location, but provided a steady address that people could find on Google. While not disclosing terms, Ms. Yu said she had negotiated a favorable lease because Market Line expected Yu & Me to generate foot traffic.

Over Labor Day weekend, Ms. Yu, her employees and her friends worked to replicate Yu & Me in the temporary space. They assembled Ikea furniture, painted walls, pulled the books out of storage and bought new ones from distributors. Ms. Yu spent $3,000 on construction fees and $10,000 on books. On opening day, the 774-square-foot space was crowded with well-wishers who told her that she had outdone herself by recreating the store’s living-room vibe.

“I’m probably going to be really good at opening bookstores at the end of this,” she quipped.

But it wasn’t the same. Bookstores rely on serendipitous foot traffic. This shop was on the lower level at Market Line, while most of the action was upstairs, where people grabbed a pizza or a beer before heading out. Ms. Yu couldn’t use her liquor or food license for this location, so she couldn’t stage the bar nights that had reliably drawn in customers.

While she encouraged patrons to grab a drink within the food hall and then come back to her store, “it was not super common,” she said. Then she paused and conceded: “It did not happen. It did not happen maybe at all. Not one time.”

Revenue declined 40 percent from a year earlier.

Yu & Me employees realized they needed to improvise. They started a “blind date” book concept. They wrapped some books in brown butcher paper, added pithy descriptions like “Generational Women Piecing Together Fabrics of Their Life” (real title: “Owner of a Lonely Heart”) and priced them slightly lower.

A colleague started displaying some smaller books on the shelves with the covers facing out after realizing that people bought books more consistently when they saw covers instead of spines.

Sales finally started to increase, and Ms. Yu vowed to apply some of the lessons at her original store once it reopened.

“At the beginning I was so mad at myself,” she said. “But I think I can’t expect to adapt and transition and not have to rework the whole process to a new one.”

It was a statement that could have described other parts of her life as well. In her unceasing effort to rebuild — everything was scheduled down to the hour — her personal life had gotten out of whack. She hadn’t taken time to process her feelings about the fire. At inopportune moments, memories of it would shake her. Some days, she’d have to walk away for hours.

“I get really overwhelmed with thoughts of the fire and thoughts of sifting through and seeing my business burned down,” she said. “I think I used to white-knuckle, brute-force my way through and just be like: ‘You are not sad right now. You’re not stressed out. You’re going to just keep pushing through.’ I really thought I could skirt around the sadness.”

Controlling what she could, she trimmed her shoulder-length hair every few months into what became a pixie cut just above her ears. (Shorter hair also saved her time.)

Ms. Yu’s tight circle of friends pushed her to eat, rest and celebrate herself, especially when her birthday and the store’s second anniversary rolled around.

“I can see how it would be easy to feel alone in this situation because at the end of the day, she is the sole owner of this store,” Ms. Fish said.

As Lunar New Year neared, Ms. Yu yearned to return to her Chinatown store. She resolved to reopen it by the end of January. Plus, in early February, Market Line announced that it would close in April.

The days preceding the reopening were chaotic. On Instagram, Yu & Me’s page advertised the event with memes and emojis. Behind the scenes, employees scrambled to get enough books to fill the store.

Ms. Yu had ordered thousands of titles, asking that they be shipped to Market Line because the original store was still under construction. But the carrier, UPS, seeing that her Market Line location was vacant, returned the shipments. After reordering them — this time to Yu & Me — she slept at the store, waiting for them to arrive.

On the last Sunday in January, Ms. Yu, now 29, opened the door to Yu & Me. It was dark and rainy, but patrons immediately and consistently flowed in.

The first was Henry Rivere, a customer who said that he was there to support an Asian-owned business and that he had been following the store’s story on social media. The author Min Jin Lee swung by to give Ms. Yu a hug, saying she was moved that the entrepreneur hadn’t given up on her dream. Gloria Moy, an upstairs neighbor who was also displaced for months after the fire, was excited to see the diverse range of customers coming into Chinatown.

“I can’t describe it,” Ms. Moy, 63, said. “To have the community come together, raise everybody up, rise from the ashes just in time for New Year’s.”

Friends with bouquets wriggled past the long line of customers. Pedro Ramirez bought $265 worth and a blue Yu & Me cap that he wore out of the store.

She had set low expectations for sales. But a month after the opening, her revenue was 50 percent more than it was before the fire. The bar nights are back, too.

Ms. Yu is now giving herself more time to read and reflect. Sitting inside the red nook, which was inspired by the hours of home-improvement binge-watching, she reflected on a line by the novelist Tayari Jones at the end of “Silver Sparrow”: “People say, that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. But they are wrong. What doesn’t kill you, doesn’t kill you. That’s all you get.”

She paused. Then her eyes welled with tears.

“It’s so true,” Ms. Yu said. “There’s been so many times in this last year where I feel like something in me is dying and I’m still here. It didn’t kill me. It didn’t kill me.”

Source link

Check out our other content

Check out other tags:

Most Popular Articles