Jhoanna Belfer worked for 15 years in the hospitality industry before shifting gears to bookselling. With an educational background in literature and writing, she’s been a lifelong reader, but after attending a writing conference in Washington, DC in 2017, she realized she wanted to be more engaged with her passion. “It was right after the election, and everyone was looking for ways to do something to help our communities and feel better,” Jhoanna remembered. “I was lucky enough to hear author and bookstore owner Ann Patchett in conversation with Emma Straub, the owner of Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, NY. Ann said that in the run-up to and aftermath of the election, having a bookstore became so valuable as a place to come together, find solace, and build community.” Then, in the Q&A, someone asked what people could do to actively change their communities, to which Ann responded: “If you can, open a bookstore.”
Located in Long Beach, CA, Bel Canto Books was born after Jhoanna attended a “bookstore bootcamp” and immersed herself in research. Before she had a brick-and-mortar store, she started with a unique and personalized book club model. “All the complaints I hear about book clubs are that someone didn’t like the chosen book, or that half the group never actually read it,” Jhoanna said. “But I knew I was good at picking out books for my friends.” She curated reading material for participants on an individual basis, and then hosted a wine and cheese night at a local bar, remarking, “To me, that’s a perfect day.”
Book clubs led to pop-up tables at street fairs and farmer’s markets, and during the summer of 2019, Jhoanna decided to quit her job and join a woman-owned shop collective called The Hangout. She pitched her idea of having a curated selection of books, focusing on stories by and about women and people of color, and filling the space with book clubs and author events. In November of 2019, she moved in, and what started as just a 10-foot wall of books in the back turned into a flourishing literary hub. “It was so much fun,” Jhoanna said. “We really started to connect with the community — but it was right before the pandemic happened.”
To keep her dream alive, Jhoanna had to get creative. She took her concept of book curation and turned it into a book concierge delivery service. Customers could fill out a survey of their reading preferences and budget, and Jhoanna would personally drive around Long Beach to deliver the local orders. By the time Bel Canto could reopen in July of 2020, she had grown her customer base and made new connections. “My favorite thing is to watch people come into the store and discover something new and exciting,” she said.
Bel Canto’s book clubs have flourished as well. Now, she hosts four different ones at a time, each with a different focus. Jhoanna highlighted one called the Burning Issues Book Club, co-hosted by a local environmental scientist. The group reads about climate change and other environmental issues, and is a space to discuss these weighty topics. “Most people don’t think, ‘Oh, I’d really love to read about the climate crisis on my Sunday afternoon,’ you know? But since there’s a group of us, we’ve created a way that encourages us all to engage with these really serious topics.” Another book club Bel Canto offers focuses on Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) authors. “I’m Filipina-American, and one of the most exciting things about the bookstore is connecting with other Filipino and Asian readers,” said Jhoanna. “Many people come into the store and say they’ve never seen this many books by Asian Americans. I’m really glad I can create that space for them.”
Jhoanna’s work within the AAPI community doesn’t stop with books. Just after the murders of six Asian American women in Atlanta, she was approached by Michelle Jocson, whom she had met through the “Bookstagram” community, who wanted to organize and raise awareness about the issue of hate crimes against Asian and Asian American people. They kicked off a five-day campaign to advocate for people to take action through donations, social media awareness, volunteering, and more. Jhoanna emphasized the importance of representation in literature, encouraging people to write to publishers and libraries to carry more AAPI books. “We discussed the question why are you standing up for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders? What does it mean to you? I’ve always believed that literature is one of the best tools for creating empathy. By introducing people to more books by AAPI authors, you can understand someone’s experience in a way that I think is small but profound.” Their activism was written about in Forbes, and Jhoanna remains very passionate about the role that books can play in fostering empathy and eliminating prejudice. “You see people not as strangers or as foreigners or others that you have to be afraid of. You learn we’re all so similar.”
First on Jhoanna’s list are author events, which she aims to launch in the fall. She’s excited to bring back readings, Q&As, and author dinners, a unique offering that will pair a good book with good food. Bel Canto will collaborate with local restaurants to create a themed meal that will go hand-in hand with the books. One of the first installments of this series will be a dinner and panel composed of entire Filipino-American authors.
Each month, Jhoanna chooses a theme, often following the American Library Association’s calendar. During March, she curated selections of books by and about Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and donated 10% of Bel Canto’s sales to local and national AAPI organizations. “I’m always amazed when I meet people who said they drove in from far away because they heard there was a Filipino bookstore here,” she said, laughing. “Is there some secret Filipino network I don’t know about?”
Besides the themed curations, customers enjoy books on social justice, cookbooks, and graphic novels. Jhoanna feels graphic novels are coming into their own, musing that the shift towards image-heavy books is beneficial not just for those who may struggle to read large blocks of text but also for anyone who simply wants to enjoy a story accompanied by beautiful art. She recommends In Waves by A. J. Dungo, a Filipino artist and writer local to Long Beach. Jhoanna says the novel does an amazing job at giving equal space to both story and imagery, each medium building on each other to create a beautiful book. When thinking about traditional novels, she recommends Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. “My highlighter was useless to me, because I was highlighting the entire book,” Jhoanna said. Lastly, she praises Love, Loss, and What We Ate by Padma Lakshmi, calling it a perfect book for those who want to escape into a world of travel and good food.
Having weathered a year’s worth of lockdowns, Jhoanna is optimistic about Bel Canto’s future. Her partners at The Hangout plan to open a cafe space, and she can’t wait to invite readers over for a glass of wine and a good book.
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All images courtesy of Jhoanna Belfer.