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Meet Jhoanna Belfer of Bel Canto Books in Long Beach

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jhoanna Belfer.

Jhoanna, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Bel Canto Books started as a pop-up book club in January 2018, with me handpicking books for a handful of family and friends who had gathered at a local wine bar in Long Beach. Our twist on the book club idea was to handpick books for each participant based on their own reading preferences, so everyone got their own special book. Hence, no disappointment in reading a so-so book and no pressure to finish the book by a certain time.

From there, we gradually added more book club participants, a second book club location – a brewpub in Huntington Beach – and more pop-up shop locations, like at our local farmer’s market and various street fairs.

I left my corporate job in the summer of 2019 to pursue my bookstore dream full-time and happened to see a call for vendors at The Hangout, a popular local shop collective in Long Beach. By November 2019, we had moved into our new brick-and-mortar space and started offering author talks, book club meetings and workshops.

Then COVID happened. We had to figure out a new way of connecting with our customers, with our shop space closed, so we started hosting virtual author talks, offering a local book delivery service, and moving our book club meetings online. Luckily our shop space was able to reopen in July for in-store shopping, and it’s been a great joy to talk to readers in person!

Has it been a smooth road?
I’m a first-time entrepreneur, so everything has been a learning experience – figuring out all the paperwork involved in starting a business, learning how to market our events and bookstore offerings, finding customers and understanding their specific wants and needs, becoming social media/website savvy, running my first pop-up shop at the farmer’s market. The list goes on and on.

And then the pandemic happened and our shop space closed, and we could no longer host in-person events. So we had to get creative. We started a book concierge service, providing personalized reading recommendations to our customers and offering local delivery within Long Beach. We reached out to authors and illustrators and started hosting weekly online events for kids and adults. We moved our book clubs to Zoom and have partnered with other organizations to co-host events.

It’s definitely much harder to be an entrepreneur, with all the responsibility for success resting on your shoulders, but I’ve also found great camaraderie and support from fellow business owners, family and friends, and most of all, our customers.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
Our bookshop space is different from most stand-alone bookstores in that we’re part of a shop collective, so when you come to our brick-and-mortar, you’ll also be able to shop for amazing plants and decor, vintage clothing and furniture, and one-of-a-kind gifts from our sister vendors (yes, we’re all women at the store!).

We rotate our book offerings since we’re limited on space, so we have a different theme or focus each month while keeping true to our mission to celebrate work by women and people of color. That’s my favorite part of the job, envisioning what books we’ll highlight for, say, Hispanic Heritage Month or Black History Month, and seeing how our customers engage with those books.

In two years, we’ve built a community of passionate readers in Long Beach and beyond and helped connect them to authors they might not otherwise have heard of. That’s what I’m most proud of.

Is our city a good place to do what you do?
Long Beach has been an ideal place for me to start my business. Residents here really value community and an independent spirit, and you see that in their support of locally run restaurants, arts venues, boutiques and yes, bookstores. And my fellow small business owners have been so welcoming, sharing resources and best practices and inviting us to collaborate with them on events.

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