How a tiny Chinatown bookstore became a hub for authentic Asian American stories

An only child raised by a Chinese immigrant mother in West Los Angeles, she spent a lot of time in bookstores. But it seemed like the stories she was most connected to — those written by immigrants and people of color — were often relegated to a single shelf or heritage month display.

“I just wanted to get into a place where I wouldn’t have to search so hard,” she said.

Yu, a chemical engineer by training, began his search and found an abundance of titles dating back decades from authors with names or backgrounds like his. But she said many of those books were quickly placed on the back to the lista publishing term referring to older books that are still in print but not usually actively promoted.

“I think the publishing industry didn’t think they were going to sell or that people were interested in our stories,” Yu added. “But they had always been there and these authors and these writers and these stories have always been there.”

Yu launched a crowdfunding campaign last year to turn her vision into reality and achieve her goal in just weeks, saying she’s not the only one who wants more from those books. In December, Yu and Me Books opened in Manhattan’s Chinatown and has been growing ever since. The store now has four employees, including Yu.
The bookstore has also become a literary and community hub. Yu and Me Books hosted conversations with immigrant authors, a book ephemera workshop, and clothing swaps. And as Asian Americans in New York City, including Chinatown, faced attacks on their communitiesthe store has joined the association Hover over hate to distribute free pepper spray and personal safety devices.

Yu sees room for improvement in publishing

Despite this, Yu did not decide to open an Asian American bookstore.

When she designed her small business, she dreamed of a space that would reflect the rich diversity of her community. She envisioned a place dedicated to stories written by immigrants and people of color — which included Asian American authors.

The space always reflects his vision. But perhaps because of Yu’s own Asian American identity, perhaps because of the historic location of his bookstore, or perhaps because of Asian Americans’ thirst for authentic representations of their communities, Yu and Me Books has since become a go-to for Asian American readers hoping to find their experiences reflected on its shelves.

“It was really interesting to see how I was kind of pushed down the Asian American bookstore route,” she said. “I think if I wasn’t Asian American, maybe I wouldn’t have had to put myself in that bracket.”

This feeling of being pigeonholed is familiar to many Asian Americans, whether they work in mediathe restaurant industry or the literary scene like Yu. For so long, Asian American representation in the creative industries has been sparse, while Asian American representations in popular culture have been filled with tired tropes and stereotypes. So when Yu launched his community-focused bookstore last year, it came with added pressure and expectations.

As Yu stuck to her mission to highlight stories of immigrants and people of color more broadly, she leaned into customer demand for books by Asian American authors. Most of its inventory is now geared towards Asian American books, she said, making Yu and Me Books a rare and special place.

“As someone who is thinking about my own identity and also a business owner, I want to be able to support anyone who wants to come in and find books that represent themselves,” she said. “But I love that there’s a lot of love and desire for Asian American books and representation.”

Yet Yu makes it a point to challenge and delight visitors to his store.

Its shelves include bestsellers such as Min Jin Lee’s “Pachinko” and Michelle Zauner’s “Crying in H Mart”, as well as niche titles from small presses. Visitors can leaf through cookbooks, romance novels, young adult novels, and volumes of poetry by Asian American authors — and the selection keeps growing. For a few hours most nights, glass of wine in hand, Yu researches what other books she doesn’t know yet that she could acquire.

“One of my favorite things I hear when customers walk into the store (is) ‘I’ve never heard of this title before’ or ‘I’ve never seen 40% of this inventory before’ “, said Yu. “It makes me so happy because you can connect to a story that is not necessarily pushed by editors.

While Yu and Me Books celebrates and showcases the breadth of work that Asian American writers have produced over the decades, Yu also encourages its visitors to keep an open mind.

“I also try to remind readers as much as possible that outside of the Asian American experience, there are so many books written by other immigrants that we can relate to,” she said. added.

Since Yu and Me Books opened, Yu said he has seen positive changes in the publishing industry. She sees more diversity among authors who are published, but those authors are often called upon to be “educators of our experience,” Yu said. As exciting as it may be to see those experiences authentically represented, she hopes that the industry will reach a point where authors can transcend their identity.

“I want authors of color to write only about unicorns or cupcakes — whatever they want to write about,” she added.

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