In This Issue
Spring Bridge on Sustainable Smart Cities
March 15, 2023
The world’s cities face increasing threats from natural disasters, aging infrastructure, traffic, and resource constraints. The articles in this issue examine smart infrastructure, sustainability, net zero carbon options, and autonomous driving, among other approaches to smart and sustainable cities.

An Interview with . . . Lucy Yu, Chemical Engineer and Bookstore Owner

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Author: Lucy Yu

RON LATANISION (RML): Today we’re talking with a chemical engineer who has a deep social conscience, I believe, as I look into some of the things she’s done. She’s a chemical engineer and also now the proprietor of a bookstore, cleverly called Yu & Me Books, in Manhattan. That’s a really interesting history.

Let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up, Lucy, where did you go to school, and how did you end up opening a bookstore in Manhattan?

Lucy YuLUCY YU: I grew up in Los Angeles. My dream was to be a cardiothoracic surgeon, and I was ready to do biochemistry in college. But I applied to UC Berkeley so late in the evening—I think it was 1:00 a.m.—that I selected chemical biology instead of biochemistry and I was accepted into the college of chemistry instead. When I got there I thought, ‘This doesn’t seem like your normal premed class. It looks a lot heavier in tech-nicality.’ And I was told, ‘Yeah, you’re in the wrong college.’ So I started off choosing the wrong major!

But my GPA at that point was too low to transfer to premed. So I decided, I’ve always loved math, I love solving problems, why not do chemical engineering. One of the best memories of my time at UC Berkeley was when I did research in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR). That was so fun, because I got to go work in the labs at RWTH University in Aachen, Germany, and I published a paper on NMR—specifically, the diffusion of metal organic frameworks. I finished my undergrad, and there was a moment there that I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll do a PhD program.’ But I’m interested in so many different things, I couldn’t see myself being so specific for so many years on just one thing.

Once I graduated, I signed up for a rotational program at MilliporeSigma. Every nine months I would change to a different location and a different job description.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): That sounds perfect for you.

MS. YU: Exactly. I think of myself as a career hobbyist, so it was an ideal situation. But it was difficult in a lot of ways. I think I was the first person of color, female engineer that they hired for the program. I found out things that were said behind my back. For example, I was called “egg roll” behind my back, and some racial terms that really frustrated me, because I thought my work spoke for itself. I realized then that, in the chemical and manufacturing industries, I was always going to have to overcome my identity, and my work couldn’t just speak for itself.

I told HR about it, but I ended up pivoting away—I thought maybe engineering isn’t really a safe place for someone that looks like me.

I love food, I’ve always loved food, and I thought, ‘Why don’t I see if I can solve some problems in food, because there’s a ton of food waste—I think people end up wasting about a third of our food because of supply chain inefficiency. That’s a big problem. But I am an engineer; maybe I can figure something out.’

On the side, during my rotation at MilliporeSigma, I actually became a line cook as well at a restaurant. I shifted my schedule from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. at my day job, and then from 5 or 6 p.m. to closing, 10 p.m., I worked as a line cook at a vegan restaurant. I was just so curious to see what the process was, where do they get the food….

RML: Let me get the logistics straight here. When you were working at Millipore, this was in Burlington in Massachusetts?

MS. YU: Yes.

RML: So you worked at your day job and then you went to the restaurant.

MS. YU: Yes. The restaurant was called Whole Heart Provisions, a fast-casual vegan restaurant in Boston. Unfortunately it’s now closed.

RML: So you were raised in California, you worked as a chemical engineer in Massachusetts, and then how did you come to open a bookstore in Manhattan?

MS. YU: After I realized engineering wasn’t for me, I ended up taking a supply chain and logistics job at Splendid Spoon and that moved me to New York City. I worked at the company for about three years.

Engineering taught me to not be afraid of any problems and to break down a big problem into a bunch of small problems.

During that time I went through the loss of one of my close friends who was also a chemical engineer; he passed away and it really shook my world and my idea of time.

I had always wanted to open a bookstore—it was a dream of mine. I figured why not do it now? So I chipped away at it for about a year, a year and a half, and then I got to the point where the last step was to find a retail space—and I opened in December of 2021.

CHF: Wow, what a tough time to open a business, during the pandemic.

MS. YU: It was not easy for sure. A lot of challenges there.

CHF: But you made it work.

MS. YU: Yes. Engineering is about problem solving, and I figured out how to solve some of the problems. It’s constant pivoting, constant adjusting. I think anything can be engineered, and I did that in the bookstore.

CHF: Tell us how you’ve brought your engineering mindset to some of the specific challenges.

MS. YU: I think engineering has taught me to not be afraid of any problems and to break down a big problem into a bunch of small problems. Setting up the bookstore, the whole idea of opening a business, that’s a big problem, and I broke it down into 30 different small problems that I slowly worked away at.

When I opened, it was right during the Delta variant of covid. At first it was really exciting, there was a lot of excitement around the bookstore. And then for a couple weeks in January 2022 no one left their house again.

So I pivoted to having an online e-commerce platform. I started scheduling events in the future. I started building out community where I could with the bookstore. I did all this understanding the risks and that there was a potential for it to not work and for the store to close in four months. I always knew that. But I tried everything I could and suddenly everything was better. We launched different events, and they brought so many people into the store because we were representing stories that were never spotlighted before at other bookstores.

RML: Are most of the titles in your bookstore fiction or—?

MS. YU: They’re a mix of everything. There’s fiction, nonfiction, we have a lot of memoirs, we have cookbooks, but the focus of the bookstore is immigrant stories and books written by writers of color. I used to go into stores and search for stories like mine. Also, I had felt like an outsider during almost all of my engineering days. I felt that because I looked and acted the way I did, my intelligence was always being questioned and put under a microscope, that my skills and work were challenged more than some of my colleagues because I didn’t fit into the stereotypical engineering archetype.

I wanted people to come into the space and not have to search so much for stories that represented their own.

RML: What’s your demographic in terms of the clients?

MS. YU: It’s very diverse—age ranges, gender, race. When you go into another bookstore you see a lot of titles written by white authors, and that’s never been questioned. I want someone to come into my space and realize ‘there is so much good written work here and it just happens to be from authors that are immigrants.’

At the baseline, it’s just good fiction or good nonfiction, good books. When people come in, they always ask for recommendations. They note a lot of books that they’ve never seen before, and that’s exciting.

CHF: That is wonderful. Do you find that you’re a resource for certain groups—say, a book group or a cooking club that’s looking for nonwhite authors and resources?

MS. YU: I think the people who come to the store are just looking for good stories. What I have found, though, is that there are a lot of people who have similar experiences to me—of being an engineer and having a lot of interests outside of engineering and not really ever finding a way to fit in even though they had good qualities or did good work or were a good engineer. Being able to share those stories in an actual physical space, and on top of that sharing books with each other, has been really beautiful and fruitful.

RML: I’m fascinated by the thought of your focus on immigrants, because if you look at the history of the United States, we basically all have immigrant roots. My grandparents were from Poland and Russia—they were coal miners, they were poor. My wife’s family was from Ireland and England, and they had similar characteristics.

When you think about immigrants now, do you go back to that stage in immigration in the United States? For example, the immigration history of the Jewish population in New York City is incredible. Are they described in your books, or is the focus more contemporary?

MS. YU: It’s a mix. A book that I’m reading right now that one of my closest friends recommended to me is The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. It’s a wonderful memoir in which every chapter describes an element and how that element has impacted the author’s life in his journey being a Jewish resident of Italy during World War II.

RML: Yes, that’s what I’m thinking about. So you do include that kind of history as well.

MS. YU: Yes. We rotate through our inventory since we are such a small space, and we have both new and used books. We have a large range of titles and they change pretty much every week.

Yu figure 2.gif

RML: Do you have any contemporary engineering writers? I’m thinking of Henry Petroski or Sam Florman. Are those names at all familiar?

MS. YU: I don’t think we have those specific authors in the store. But have you heard of Weike Wang?

RML: I have not.

MS. YU: She got her degree in chemistry and is now a fairly well-known contemporary author. She wrote Chemistry and just released Joan Is Okay. So she has a somewhat similar background in terms of being a scientist and now she writes novels. That’s integrated in the way she writes, which is hilarious.

I think a lot of people connect with that, because it seems rare for engineers. I think it’s more rare than we realize for engineers to be strictly engineers, and there is so much fluidity in the idea and the description of engineering.

RML: I brought up Henry Petroski and Sam Florman because we’ve interviewed both of them for The Bridge. One of Henry’s early books is To Engineer Is Human, and it’s a remarkable story about what it means to be an engineer, the impact on society. Sam Florman lives in Manhattan and he’s written a book called The Existential Pleasures of Engineering. These are not titles you would expect to find in many bookstores, but I recommend them to you because they have characteristics that I think are in keeping with where you’re headed. They are about engineers and engineering, but with a deep sense of social responsibility. If you haven’t seen them I think you would enjoy reading them.

MS. YU: For sure.

RML: You do have a very deep sense of social consciousness or social justice. I applaud that. I think not just engineers but people in general have lost that today in many respects, and it’s something to be treasured. We tend to forget as engineers that we are serving a social purpose, and yet, when I look at some of the things that have found their way into the marketplace, I think you have to question whether they’re really serving society’s interests all that well.

How did your sensitivities develop?

MS. YU: When I was in engineering, I was surrounded by people who didn’t have these sensitivities or the priorities to think about ‘what does what we’re doing mean for the benefit of society? Who are we not including in the conversation when we’re engineering this? What group are we excluding from this product or from this invention?’

It’s hard to be one person challenging an
entire classroom that
doesn’t look like you.

When you look at engineering classes and the demographics, diversity is lacking. So it’s not so surprising that that thinking is missing there. I think there is a huge gap and a huge opportunity for curriculum to integrate that.

I remember arguing with my professors. They were making the argument that being moral from a business and engineering perspective was really being financially responsible or finding a way to make things financially efficient. That isn’t what morality is, and when I challenged that, it’s hard to be one person challenging an entire classroom that doesn’t look like you.

It’s not so much that I developed these sensitivities but that I have to live through them. I think being on the margins of a lot of the academic courses and career portions that I’ve been through, you can’t help but develop some of that mindset. I was excluded; who else is excluded?

RML: I appreciate that comment. I really believe that engineering schools should involve social scientists in their curriculum.

For example, the internet was intended to serve as a platform that would provide information globally, and it does that beautifully. We all use it every day. But it has also become a tool of divisiveness, sometimes recruiting people who are antagonistic to their colleagues and the population in a broad sense. I don’t think anyone ever intended that, but I’m not sure we thought through the potential or the problems. What people put up on social media is almost unfettered, and some of it is very divisive. I don’t think that’s socially useful.

Would you agree that social scientists should have a role in an engineering curriculum or a university?

MS. YU: I think that in any technical field, there is a huge lack of social awareness. In terms of engineering, it’s an iterative process. When something is developed, potential can never be predicted, because we’re only starting at one phase and that phase will continue to iterate to many different phases. Once it’s out there, it is kind of out of your control. It’s like shipping a package: all I can do is put the book in the bubble mailer, and once I send it out I don’t know how it’s going to arrive to the customer. I think that that’s bound to happen continuously, and all we can do is create the right barriers. For example, face recognition tools are based largely on white male faces. Are we being considerate of the harmful effects of that on populations that are not included in the hypothesis or product development portion? I think a lot of the conversations aren’t even being had at the technical level.

RML: I think you’re right. A lot of this is unanticipated in many respects, and I think that’s another way of expressing what you just said. On the other hand, once you begin to see that these things are happening, doesn’t that suggest there should be some response?

I’m concerned that as technologists we should look at both the economic and social risks in rolling out a new engineering system into the marketplace. Often, it seems, once in the marketplace, there is a great resistance to any regulatory attachments. That’s what I’m concerned about with the internet, for example, and social media. They seem to be almost unfettered at this point.

CHF: And the more kinds of people are involved directly in engineering—who are present in classrooms and labs and startups and education and companies, the more people who are other than white men—the better will be the consideration of possible effects and ramifications. As you said, Lucy, once something is out there and on the market, it’s out of your hands, it’s going to evolve the way it evolves, with different iterations. But before it gets to that point, the potential outcomes could be improved with the involvement of more diverse perspectives and input.

RML: I agree, that’s exactly what I’m thinking about.

MS. YU: And that’s my view as well. I think sometimes engineering happens in a vacuum, and it happens in the vacuum of people who look very similar. To shift that dynamic could add to a lot of potential for good for the future of engineering.

RML: Lucy, are you also a writer?

MS. YU: Casually. And in my opinion, not a very good one.

RML: What have you written?

MS. YU: Other than research papers, I’ve written some flash fiction—short stories—from time to time.

RML: What’s on the horizon? Where do you see yourself in five years with your bookstore? What’s your grand vision?

MS. YU: I do get asked that question, but I don’t tend to look that far. I used to look far in advance and had five-year plans, but I think the best that we can do is try to look at the next day ahead of us. My hope is that someone feels a little more at home in the store tomorrow and the tomorrow after that. The best I hope for is to expand the community and feel that I am continuing to iterate my nurturing process for developing the bookstore, however that looks. I’m open to pivoting in different ways.

RML: Do you feel comfortable now economically, socially? Do you feel integrated into the culture in New York and Manhattan?

MS. YU: I love New York City and feel very at home here. I think as a business owner, you’re never comfortable. I think you’re always trying to figure out different ways to expand or change, because times change and the last thing you want to do as a business owner is to be stagnant.

I’m super excited to be past the one-year mark. I think that’s a big mark for a small business. I hope it continues that way, but I’m always cautiously hopeful. I think every business owner would say the same.

CHF: It sounds like you’re doing cool things with your bookstore, and bookstores have gotten very creative and resourceful as community resources. For example, there are small independent bookstores in this area that host their own reading groups and do wine tastings and other kinds of events. You clearly are also active in outreach. Can you tell us anything you’re thinking about in terms of further outreach for your bookstore?

MS. YU: When I first opened, I partnered with an organization called Soar Over Hate. At the time, there was a huge rise in Asian hate crimes in New York City and especially against women. This group distributed free pepper spray at the store, and I think on that day we ended up distributing over 1,000 pepper sprays.

When something is developed, potential can never be predicted,
because we’re only starting at one phase, which will continue to iterate.

We have a slew of different events at the bookstore. For example, we have a book club every month—people vote on the book and we discuss it for an hour and a half while drinking wine or water. The focus this year is to be a little more engaging with the events, beyond our readings and signings. How can we create an environment where people create their own work, have poetry workshops, and can be more engaged in the events that we host?

Yu figure 3.gifThere are two kinds of events. There’s a somewhat more passive engagement, such as listening to an author speak, with a moderator; and there’s active participation. But the bookstore space is very small, and at our events we sometimes get 50 or 60 people. The space is tiny, so you’re just maybe one foot away from the author. It creates a more intimate gathering and experience, less of a performance and more of an engagement with the audience.

RML: How many employees are in your store, aside from you and Odie?

MS. YU: Other than Odie, “the employee of the month,” we have seven employees.

CHF: That’s a good size staff. What’s the square footage of your store?

MS. YU: It’s tiny, a bit less than 1,000 square feet. We have kind of bar hours, too, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, when we’re open until 1 a.m.

CHF: Who are some of the authors at your events?

MS. YU: We just had a signing with Michelle Zauner, who wrote Crying in H Mart. We actually had 240 people come, and the line out the door was three blocks long.

In addition to her and Weike Wang, there’s Stephanie Foo, Qian Julie Wang, and Cathy Park Hong, who wrote Minor Feelings. We’ve had a mix of debut authors, and local poets as well. We do a poetry night where we have five or six local poets come together and they share their chapbooks. So it’s a range of big names and a lot of local authors.

CHF: That makes you a resource for the artists as well.

MS. YU: I sure hope so.

RML: What is Odie’s role?

MS. YU: She waits in the corner and steals people’s food.

CHF: She’s the self-appointed welcoming committee.

MS. YU: Exactly. She’s a very good host.

CHF: Your job frankly sounds like fun. How do you go about selecting new titles and authors?

MS. YU: It is fun, a lot of fun. The best part is I work with my friends. One of my coworkers is a software engineer. Another was a biologist who did consulting for a couple of years, and now he works as a barista and also at the store. With all of us having similar backgrounds, one of the best parts of our job is sitting down and discovering new titles. There’s a plethora of incredible titles out there. We all try to read a lot, which is another fun part of the job. Every title in the store is handpicked by one of our booksellers.

RML: How do you arrange a book signing?

MS. YU: It can happen a couple of different ways. Either we reach out to the author or the author’s team, or they reach out to us, through their agent or publisher, or directly.

CHF: That’s pretty fabulous that you’re well-known enough that they’re contacting you. That speaks volumes (no pun intended).

How do you decide on what books you’re going to stock? There’s such a wealth of riches and possibilities increasingly on the market. Do you ever have to say, ‘Hm, we don’t have room to order all seven of these titles that sound fabulous. We’re going to have to narrow it down to three or four.’

MS. YU: Yes, I think any bookstore has to make that decision. There’s only a limited amount of space, but as I mentioned, our inventory moves very fast. We don’t keep a ton of safety stock. What we have on our shelves rotates a lot, and because of that we can add in titles that we weren’t able to last week, or add them to the list for next week. It’s very fluid. We have a mix of new and old titles, which always helps, and people find something new every week at the store.

CHF: So you can afford to be pretty flexible and nimble.

MS. YU: That’s the structure that we’ve developed. I think we kind of have to do that in the small space that we have. But it allows it to be a different customer experience every time they come in the store.

RML: In the store photos on your website I see a lot of art on the walls. Do you also sell art, or is it on the walls because you like it?

MS. YU: We sell art from local artists in New York City. I’m also a painter, and some of the art I painted myself. We do rotate with different artists that we try to support locally.

RML: What kind of painter are you—what’s your medium?

MS. YU: Mostly acrylic.

RML: Am I looking at any of your art in these website pictures? I see a photograph that has your employee of the month front and center.

MS. YU: Yes, that’s the one I painted.

RML: Tell me about Odie.

MS. YU: She’s a great dog, and a great employee. She sweeps the floors with her ears. Her face naturally looks disappointed, so I think it’s really funny to have her as the employee of the month. She’s a sweetheart and everyone loves her in the store.

RML: Is she typically in the store with you?

MS. YU: Not all the time, because she does steal all our food. But when she’s there, she says hello to anyone and welcomes all the pets in the world.

RML: Do you get back to Berkeley at all, or do you have any communication with people you worked with while you were there?

MS. YU: I’m still very close with the professor I worked with when I did NMR research. We keep in touch. And a lot of the grad students that were in that program, a lot of my colleagues or classmates—I have a close group of friends and they actually all flew to New York to surprise me and support me on my opening day, which was so amazing. And sometimes people from high school or college will come in to the store and say hi.

I’ve pivoted pretty far from engineering at this point. It was incredibly difficult curriculum, and I really hope they’re more inclusive in the way they approach it and the ways professors treat their female students especially. I had some experiences where it was clear that a lot of the female classmates I worked with were experi-encing a different treatment than the majority of the class. I hope that has gotten more inclusive and a bit better.

RML: So you don’t see yourself engaging in chemical engineering again?

MS. YU: Not at this point, but you never know. That’s why I don’t make a five-year plan.

RML: Absolutely. As we wind up, I do want to say that I get to Manhattan regularly, so don’t be surprised if I pop up, but I will introduce myself.

MS. YU: Please do stop by and say hi.

RML: I will. Thank you very much, Lucy, for joining us today. I continue to be amazed by the things that engineers do that go beyond what people expect of them, and this is another great example.

CHF: Thanks a bunch for taking the time to talk with us, Lucy. What a pleasure.

MS. YU: Thank you so much. Have a wonderful month.


This interview took place February 2. It has been edited for length and clarity.


About the Author:Lucy Yu is a chemical engineer and bookstore owner