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Jhoanna Belfer is a steward of storytelling
Running a business

Jhoanna Belfer is a steward of storytelling

In honor of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) Heritage Month QuickBooks is spotlighting AANHPI-owned small businesses, their stories, and their journeys to success. Check the Small Business Stories hub all month for more inspiration.

Name: Jhoanna Belfer 

Location: Long Beach, CA

Business: Bel Canto Books

Tell us a bit about your business. 

Bel Canto Books is a Filipina-owned indie bookstore, offering a curated selection of fiction, nonfiction, and children's books, organized around a theme of the month, in particular celebrating books by women and people of color.

What makes your small business unique from others?

Our micro-size (under 400 square feet at each location) means that every book is hand-picked by me, with a focus on AAPI and BIPOC authors. 

Why did you decide to start your own business? How did you get started?

After spending all of my adult life working in the corporate world, I wanted to shift to something that reconnected me to my lifelong love of reading and storytelling. I started in January 2018 as a pop-up business, hosting a monthly book club at local wine bars and restaurants. 

What is the biggest lesson you learned in the first year?

We opened our first brick-and-mortar location just before the pandemic, in November 2019, so learning how to adapt and innovate under constantly changing conditions was essential to our success.

What was the most surprising thing about becoming a business owner?

The runaway success of our teeny, tiny bookstore has been the most surprising, and deeply gratifying, thing about becoming a business owner, especially during a global pandemic. 

What were some things you needed to teach yourself about running a business? How did you learn those things? 

I needed to learn so many things, from doing all the paperwork to set up the business, to understanding how the book industry works, to how to run a retail store, to then pivoting to add virtual and online components to our business. I took business classes at our local college and with a bookstore consulting company, talked to a lot of small business owners, and did my own research online. 

How does running your own business make you feel?

Running and starting my own business has given me incredible confidence in my own abilities and the power of community building. I’m so proud of everything that we’ve accomplished — opening multiple locations, building an engaged community of readers locally and globally, and creating robust programming in the form of author events, book clubs, community events, and literary festivals.

What are some of the challenges you’ve overcome or are working to overcome?

Profitability remains our biggest challenge. Running an indie bookstore is a very “high touch,” customer service oriented business with low profit margins, so we’re constantly looking for community partnerships and new business opportunities. 

What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs looking to start their own business?

Do your research. Take business classes, talk to other business owners, and make sure you understand the needs of your community.

How do you manage to wear every hat that your business demands? 

Being a solopreneur is a marathon, not a race. Do the best you can with the time, energy, and resources you have, and remember to extend grace to yourself when you need it. You are just one person.

What challenges do you feel are unique to AANHPI business owners?

As a first generation Filipina entrepreneur and lifelong overachiever, I feel incredible pressure to succeed and be a credit to my community. I struggle with being a people pleaser and setting boundaries to protect my mental health and physical wellness.

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Remember to extend grace to yourself when you need it. You are just one person.

What are your proudest moments?

I’m proudest when customers find a meaningful book or discover a new author through our bookstore, especially when it comes to our AANHPI community members. Seeing them see themselves represented on our bookshelves is so powerful. 

What are the next big plans you have for your business?

I want to keep the door open for new opportunities to connect with more readers, especially young people, whether that is through expanding the reach of our AAPI literary festivals, finding a larger bookstore and community space, or creating new programming that fills some of the learning gaps in our education system. 

When you’re having a tough day, who or what inspires you to keep going?

I think of the people I’ve connected with through the bookstore, amazing people in our community who are taking care of loved ones, going back to school, working multiple jobs, and raising growing families, all while advocating for a better world. I remind myself of all the good in my life and in what I have yet to dream of.

How do you maintain a work/life balance as a small business owner?

I’m an “all or nothing” kind of person, so I love to be really busy and active, and then hide out for a few hours (or a day) and recharge by reading a good book, watching my streaming shows, or spending time outdoors. 

What’s your “power song” and why? 

I started listening to “All I Do Is Win” by DJ Khaled about six years ago when I was studying to pass a hospitality industry exam, and it’s stuck with me. It makes me laugh, and I love dancing around to it.

To learn more about Bel Canto Books and support the business, visit their website or check out their adventures on Instagram.

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