More than 300 bookstores have opened in the past couple of years
Lucy Yu was certain that a bookstore "focused on Asian American and immigrant stories" was just what Chinatown needed.
People told Lucy Yu it was a crazy time to open a bookstore in Chinatown. It was early 2021, and the pandemic had devastated the neighborhood, forcing dozens of stores and restaurants to close. The rise of anti-Asian hate crimes had shaken residents and local business owners.
But Ms. Yu believed that a bookstore was just what the neighborhood needed.
She raised around $20,000 on GoFundMe, enough to rent a narrow storefront — a former funeral supply store — on Mulberry Street in downtown Manhattan. A neighborhood grant gave her $2,000 for shelves and books. And in December, she opened Yu and Me Books, which specializes in titles by and about immigrants and people of color.
The store was profitable within four months, Ms. Yu said.
Yu and Me Books is one of more than 300 new independent bookstores that have sprouted across the United States in the past couple of years, in a surprising and welcome revival after an early pandemic slump. And as the number of stores has grown, the book selling business — traditionally overwhelmingly white — has also become more much more diverse.
“People were hungry for a place focused on Asian American and immigrant stories,” said Ms. Yu, 27, who worked as a chemical engineer and supply chain manager before opening the store. “That’s something I was always searching for when I went to bookstores, and I wanted people to come here and not have to search.”
Two years ago, the future of independent book selling looked bleak. As the coronavirus forced retailers to shut down, hundreds of small booksellers around the United States seemed doomed. Bookstore sales fell nearly 30 percent in 2020, U.S. Census Bureau data showed. The publishing industry was braced for a blow to its retail ecosystem, one that could permanently reshape the way readers discover and buy books.
Instead, something unexpected happened: Small booksellers not only survived the pandemic, but many are thriving.
“It’s kind of shocking when you think about what dire straits the stores were in in 2020,” said Allison Hill, the chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, a trade organization for independent bookstores. “We saw a rally like we’ve never seen before.”
Nyshell Lawrence's store carries titles by Black authors -- most of them women.
The association now has 2,023 member stores in 2,561 locations, up from 1,689 in early July of 2020. Some of the growth reflects the renewal of memberships by existing stores that put off doing it last year amid the uncertainly caused by the pandemic. But there has also been a sharp and sustained rise in new bookshops, and more than 200 additional stores are preparing to open in the next year or two, Ms. Hill said.
Many stores have also seen a bump in profits. In a survey of booksellers earlier this year, the association found that some 80 percent of respondents said they saw higher sales in 2021 than in 2020, and nearly 70 percent said their sales last year were higher than 2019, Ms. Hill said.