Bel Canto Books in Long Beach has stories for everyone

Bel+Canto+Books+inside+The+Hangout+on+Fourth+Street+in+Long+Beach

Courtesy of Bel Canto Books

Bel Canto Books inside The Hangout on Fourth Street in Long Beach

Jhoanna Belfer, owner of Bel Canto Books, has lined its shelves with the stories she didn’t see as a young reader, featuring main characters of color that the children of Long Beach can see themselves in.

“I think for me, that’s kind of number one on our mission,” Belfer said, “to make sure that we are offering books for our community that reflects our community. You know, I grew up as a Filipino American in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood and we didn’t have a lot of money so we didn’t go to the bookstore. But the books that I remember reading as a child, either at the library or that we’d pick up at a garage sale were almost always [by] Caucasian authors– which I loved E.B. White. Trumpet of the Swan and Charlotte’s Web are two books I absolutely adore– and a lot of the children’s books that I read when I was a kid featured white characters, and I think that was just a function of the times. But now with so many authors and illustrators of color who are out there, I just feel like if we don’t do it, who else is going to?”

Children’s picture books at Bel Canto Books include Cora Cooks Pancit by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore; Ways To Make Sunshine by Renee Watson; I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes; My Papi Has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero and many other titles with Asian, Black and Latinx children as main characters.

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Feeling like we need this reminder today! We loved @authorderrickdbarnes critically acclaimed picture book “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut” and are so excited to feature his latest, “I Am Every Good Thing,” both beautifully illustrated by @gordoncjamesfineart. We’re closed today but open online at shopthehangout.com! ???? #iameverygoodthing #crownodetothefreshcut #derrickbarnes #gordoncjames #childrensbooks #childrensbookillustration #illustration #picturebooks #blackboyjoy #blacklivesmatter #blackexcellence #readtolead #mondaymotivation #teachourchildrenwell #inspireconfidence #confidentkids #diversebooks #weneeddiversebooks #readingisfundamental #letsreadtogether #readingwithkids #kidslit

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“We’ve heard so much positive feedback from our customers and people who will literally say to me, ‘Oh, my God, I’ve never seen this many books for Asian kids in one place. I’ve never seen this many books for Latino kids in one place,” Belfer said. “And so that’s really important to us. I don’t think it’s something that you can quantify or measure, but I think that when you’re able to see yourself on the cover of a book or in a TV show, or as a president, it reinforces the idea that you can be that, you can do those things. You know, even if you’re a poor kid from a bad neighborhood.”

Belfer arrived in the United States when she was four years old, after a year of being separated from both her parents as they established themselves in California while she remained in the Phillipines.

She noted that her family actually had an easier time with the immigration process when compared to other Filipino families because her grandfather had been an Irish American soldier who went to the Philippines to fight in the Spanish American War.

“So we had like a little extra ‘in’ in terms of emigrating to the US, so it was a little easier for my parents. But they still had to leave us kids behind when they first came here because they had to find jobs and prove that they were upstanding citizens who could take care of themselves. And so my mom actually came out here first and then my father followed shortly afterward and then it was a year before we saw our parents again.”

As a child growing up in Santa Ana, she developed a life long love of books that followed her into adulthood, and eventually led to her questioning her 15 year corporate career in the hotel industry.

“As I was working, you know, kind of climbing up the corporate ladder, I started to question, was this the best use of my talents? Was this what I wanted my legacy to be? And that’s when I decided to start looking into becoming a bookstore owner. I’ve always had a lifelong passion for books. So I was that kid who would spend all summer long repeating and my mom would yell at me to go outside and play and I would just want to stay at home in the couch or on the bed, reading books. And I just always had this love of literature. And so I thought if I could find a way to make my sales skills that I had gained in the hotel business work with the book business, I thought that would be a perfect segue,” Belfer told the Signal Tribune.

Jhoanna Belfer, owner of Bel Canto Books holding a book stack of stories highlighting Latinx authors in celebration of Latinx Heritage Month. (Photo via @belcantobooks IG)

Belfer started Bel Canto Books as a side business in 2018, doing small pop up events at farmer’s markets and street festivals before finally moving into The Hangout in November of 2019. The Hangout is a shop collective located on Fourth Street in Long Beach. Sharing a space and rent with multiple businesses has helped Bel Canto Books flourish in a time when many other small bookstores have been forced to close.

Diversity in authors and main characters extends to the indie bookstore’s adult sections as well, with Bel Canto Books currently highlighting Latinx authors in celebration of Latinx Heritage Month. Bel Cantos Books has selected The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio for it’s monthly book club read, which tells the author’s story of attending and graduating Harvard while undocumented.

The Undocumented Americans by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Earlier this month, Belfer was able to raise $290 for the Filipino Migrant Center by donating 10% of its sales for Labor Day Week.

Well acquainted with the difficulties Filipino families of the diaspora face, Belfer wanted to give back to the community.

The Filipino Migrant Center was founded in 2010 and works to empower and support working class Filipinos living in Southern California. The nonprofit organization fights for justice in the intersecting social structures of healthcare, mental health, workers rights and immigration. They also plan community programs including a Walking Club geared towards seniors and their families.

Bel Canto Books also recently began participating in the Boston Filipino American Book Club, which selects a different book by a Filipino author each month. This month’s pick is In Waves, a graphic memoir by AJ Dungo that tells the story of how he met his late partner through surfing. Next month the book club will be reading The Son of Good Fortune by Lysley Tenorio, a recently published novel about an undocumented Filipino mother and son living in California.

Besides the Boston Filipino American Book Club and it’s own monthly book club, Bel Canto Books also co-hosts the Burning Issues Book Club, led by an environmental scientist and activist, with books that cover aspects of environmentalism such as food waste and environmental racism. This month they are reading The Fate of Food by Amanda Little.

“If you can find the thing that really is helping the community and is providing something special, people out there are supporting it,” Belfer said.

The Hangout, a shop collective that includes Bel Canto Books. (Courtesy of Bel Canto Books)

Bel Canto Books is located inside The Hangout, a shop collective located at 2122 E 4th St. in Long Beach’s Retro Row. For current hours visit shopthehangout.com.