Fire devastated this NYC Chinatown bookshop — community has rushed to its aid
On July 4, Lucy Yu was working at her bookstore, Yu & Me Books, in Manhattan's Chinatown, when she began to smell smoke. She thought it must be from fireworks.
"My neighbor came running through the smoke into the store," Yu recalled one recent afternoon, standing in her darkened storefront. "She was like, 'You have to get out of the building, there's a fire.' " One of the building's tenants, Frank Yee, later died; Manhattan's Chinatown has had a string of deadly or devastating fires in recent months – four people died in a blaze at an e-bike shop, and multiple people were displaced after a fire in the building of the Fu Hao Gift Shop.
"I think I'm trying to find space in my brain to grieve, but even allowing a little bit of the floodgates of grief to open is a lot to handle," Yu said.
Now Yu and her staff are tasked with the many logistics after the fire: working with insurance and the construction crew on demolishing the existing space to abate any smoke or water damage; seeking a temporary space; and sorting through their damaged inventory. She said she hopes the store will be able to return to the Mulberry Street location in seven months.
It's a tricky balance, mourning what she describes as "version one" of her store when she's forced to consider "version two."
"It's tough because it's my business, but also, my whole soul is in it," Yu said. "All of my coworkers are my close friends, and all of us are trying to manage it like a project, but also holding space for the pain that we feel in our hearts ... all those things can exist, of being really proud of myself, understanding I'm handling it the best way I can, but also knowing that this is a long road to recovery and that the grief might stay in my heart for a while."
Authors and customers from all around the country flooded the store's online fundraiser, with donations totaling more than $350,000. This support has allowed Yu to continue paying her staff, replacing damaged inventory and equipment, and operating pop up events around the city.
"I remember hearing about the fire and just having this sinking feeling in my gut, like: 'It can't be happening to Yu & Me – this beloved space,' " Sally Wen Mao recalled. Mao had previously moderated other author events at Yu & Me's Mulberry Street location, and was planning to launch her new poetry collection, The Kingdom of Surfaces, there as well. She had assumed the fire would change their plans.
But Mao said, Yu and her staff were determined to help.
Yu said that other businesses and bookstores have been instrumental in their support. Book Club Bar in the East Village will lend them space to host book clubs; the cookbook shop Archestratus Books & Foods is hosting a bake sale fundraiser for them on Saturday, Aug. 5; and the Brooklyn-based store, Books Are Magic, has opened their space for Yu & Me events.
"There was an article that I read in which Lucy mentioned that she's used to being alone and doing things by herself, and she wasn't expecting this kind of response from the community," Mao said. It resonated with her. "As poets, we have to depend on community support. As poets, we don't have large PR engines behind us."
And the pandemic has made spaces like Yu & Me Books even more rare, according to Cathy Linh Che, the executive director of Kundiman, an Asian American literary organization.
"These gathering spaces around literature, around finding community have been essentially decimated," Che said, pointing to the iconic shop, Eastwind Books of Berkeley, recently shuttering its physical space, and the Smithsonian's controversial decision to cancel its Asian American Literature Festival, just weeks before it was scheduled to take place. But the Yu & Me Books pop up event in Brooklyn is the type of forward momentum that she says is necessary.
"It gives us a lot of life and hope that you can see Lucy Yu with a big smile, [and know] she's going to give you a big hug," Che said. "We know that the spirit of Yu & Me Books, without its current physical space, still lives on."
"Feeling that joy of being able to come together in this space that's not even Yu & Me Books makes me realize that home is people and a place," Yu said. "And the extensions of home are so much bigger than I give it credit for."
Yu said it's hard to put into words, but she's realizing that it's "not that hard" or complicated to foster this sense of community; it's just about welcoming people to come as they are. "When we talk about creating community and we talk about creating space for diversity within a diaspora, that's actually so easy," she said. "It's just kindness at the core of it."
As Yu rebuilds Yu & Me Books in the aftermath of the fire, she's discovering that home and community are only expanding.
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