Book whisperer Jhoanna Belfer knows what you should read next; just ask

Before the pandemic, you’d find Bel Canto Books popping up at farmer’s markets, literary events, conferences, just about everywhere there were people. If you were to wander over, you’d find a table with lots of books chosen specifically for an event whether it was women and tech or Black History. Sitting behind the table, you’d meet the chooser, Jhoanna Belfer, attentive and gregarious and probably asking you what you liked to read.

Belfer, founder of Bel Canto Books, likes to say that this is her superpower: reading, a lot, and then recommending books she thinks you would like based on your tastes and interests.

When Long Beach went into safer-at-home, Belfer adapted quickly. No longer able to chat with people in person, Bel Canto Books now offers a personalized book concierge program called Books Go Mobile. After asking a few questions, Belfer comes up with a list of suggestions just for you. If you like her picks and want to buy the books, she’ll ship or deliver the books straight to your door, usually with some sort of personal touch.

“People get excited when their books arrive,” she said. “They know a real person picked these books out just for them. It’s like a present to yourself.”

For voracious readers, Books Go Mobile is like having a personal shopper or a subscription service. For casual readers, it’s like trusting an expert to show you the ropes.

“It can be intimidating to have so many choices,” Belfer said. “A book is a commitment, so I love helping people find something they’ll like. I can personally vouch for every single book I recommend.”

The books she recommends are largely influenced by her own literary tastes. Belfer loves a good story, compelling characters, a world you can get lost in. Literary fiction, books by women, a strong narrative—these are all prominent in her selection criteria. So if you generally like these elements, you’ll probably like her picks.

“Personally, I have a freaky love for dystopian fiction,” she said. “If you’re looking for something experimental, though, you might want to ask someone else. I want a good story, something that will take me out of this world and into another.”

If you’re wondering how much Belfer reads, it’s around seven books a month. Still, no one can read every single book out there, so Belfer also keeps a pulse on the literary scene, following new releases and reading reviews. Even if your tastes veer slightly out of her aesthetic, she can probably still recommend a quality read.

The caveat: If you’re looking for highly specific non-fiction recommendations on niche subjects, like herbalism or mechanics, she’ll refer you to Bel Canto’s Bookshop.com page, where you can conduct your own searches, buy a book online, and still support your local bookseller.

As Belfer puts it, “I’m not an algorithm. I’m a person who loves to read.”

Bel Canto Books recently became a permanent pop-up inside The Hangout on 4th Street, offering a rotating wall of curated books. Now, with stores closed, she keeps much of her stock at home—around a hundred or so of her favorites ready to recommend and send off to a hungry reader. And she’s constantly ordering more. For Belfer, “Ordering books is like being a kid in a candy store.”

I’d call her a book whisperer, and it’s clear that her passion for reading is a gift to the rest of us.

“I’m making up for all that time that my parents or boyfriends were annoyed that I was reading so much. Now it’s my superhero skill,” she said.

So how do you get a personalized reading recommendation?

Go to Bel Canto’s website and click on “Sign Up for Books Go Mobile.” You’ll be prompted to answer some survey questions asking what genres you like and do you prefer short or long books? Are you looking for funny or serious, what’s the last book you read, what do you not like reading and what’s your budget? If you have a Goodreads account, she’ll scan your bookshelf to get an idea of your interests. Then, she’ll contact you with a list of books you might enjoy, and you can order them to be delivered.

Bel Canto Books has quickly gained a loyal following in the Long Beach literary scene. Pre-pandemic, in-person social events included book clubs, author readings and craft days. Now, you can still mingle bookishly with virtual gatherings.

Since 2017, Bel Canto has been drawing readers into this slice of the local literary community. And it all started after Belfer decided to send a few emails asking friends: How would you like a popup bookstore that curated books for specific events?

Turns out a lot of people said they would like that. (Actually, she got the email idea from a book I also have on my shelf, The $100 Startup, by Chris Guillebeau.)

I asked Belfer to recommend books for the following scenarios:

  • I want something light-hearted, funny and poignant, nothing too heavy or intense.

RECOMMENDATION: “Calypso,” by David Sedaris

“David Sedaris always has a quirky take on the world and a really strong voice, so I recommend his book of short essays, Calypso. It’s hilarious, with just the right amount of kooky edge. He writes about seeing the world differently as he ages, specifically his family relationships. It’s funny, sarcastic, deadpan humor that you can easily put down and pick up again at any time.”

  • I want to read a thrilling dystopian drama that will captivate me for a long time.

RECOMMENDATION: “Parable of the Sower,” by Octavia E. Butler

“I love Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Written in 1993, it’s creepy how spot-on she is about our world taking a nosedive. The novel starts in 2024 and shows us a society where climate change and economic problems have led to shortages of natural resources and guarded compounds for the rich. The story follows one young girl who doesn’t think society will return to the way it was, ever. So she decides to leave her neighborhood and start all over. You can get lost for hours at a time with this one. And also learn what to put in a go-bag.”

  • I love classics, something a little more serious but ultimately happy, nothing with a lot of violence or abuse.

RECOMMENDATION: “Longbourn,” by Jo Baker

“If you liked Pride and Prejudice, you’ll love Longbourn, by Jo Baker. It’s a modern take on the Jane Austen classic, retelling the story from the perspective of the servants. We barely see them in the original novel, but here we get a whole new take on things through their eyes. Downton Abbey-esque, it’s a fantastic contemporary novel that gives you a totally different viewpoint on this world you already love. Like really good fan-fiction.”

  • I’m an avid reader and I can get into anything good. Just tell me what you’re into right now.

RECOMMENDATION: “The Library Book,” by Susan Orlean

“Right now I’m loving Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, which is another one of her brilliant works of investigative journalism. It’s a love letter to libraries and librarians, all about the huge fire that ravaged the Los Angeles Public Library in 1986. It destroyed about a third of their catalog, huge collections you couldn’t find anywhere else. Orlean uses the fire as a lens to look at Los Angeles and California history, the history of public libraries and how arson claims are investigated. She wraps it all up into one big story. It’s a beautiful piece. Especially if you’re a lover of words, you’ll love this.”

Visit Bel Canto’s website to sign up for Books Go Mobile and learn about upcoming virtual events like author talks, storytime for kids, online book club and a bookish happy hour. Follow Bel Canto Books on Instagram and Facebook. Interested in purchasing any of these books? Email [email protected] or order from Bel Canto’s Bookshop page.

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