I was introduced to Bel Canto Books from previous guest of the Best Book Ever, Asha Sabbella, who travels there frequently with her book club. She has impeccable taste in books, and is a fierce advocate for BIPOC and women authors. Major warning: this episode will make you want to open a bookstore. I have spent many hours – many, many hours – researching bookstore ownership since my talk with Jhoanna.
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Books discussed in this episode:
The Body Papers: A Memoir by Grace Talusan
Page Against the Machine Bookstore, Long Beach, CA
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Books are Magic Bookstore, Brooklyn, NY (Emma Straub’s bookstore)
Paz and Associates Bookstore Bootcamp
Truth and Beauty: A Friendship by Ann Patchett
The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, Acton, MA
BFAB: Boston Filipino American Book Club
America is Not the Heart – Elaine Castillo
In Waves by AJ Dungo
The Hangout, Long Beach, CA
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory by David Graeber
Discussed in our Patreon Conversation
These Precious Days by Ann Patchett
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Underground Railroad TV Series
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Crying in H Mart by Michelle
Miracle Creek by Angie Kim
The Broken Country: On Trauma, a Crime, and the Continuing Legacy of Vietnam by Paisley Rekdal
(Note: If you shop using my affiliate links, a portion of your purchase will go to me, at no extra expense to you. Thank you for supporting indie bookstores and for helping to keep the Best Book Ever Podcast in business!)
.Hello, Bookworms, welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where we talk about your favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and I am extra excited about today’s guest because she owns a bookstore! Jhoanna Belfer is the founder and owner of Bel Canto Books, an independent bookstore in Long Beach, California. A Filipino-American poet and former hospitality executive, Jhoanna started hosting pop-up book events in 2018 as a way of connecting her business experience with her lifelong love of reading. She currently serves on the American Booksellers Association’s Bookseller Advisory Council, and is a founding member of the Burning Issues Book Club. I had so much fun talking to Jhoanna about the bookstore life that all of us readers secretly dream about, how she chose the name for her bookstore, and why The Body Papers by Grace Taluson is the Best Book Ever.
For more on how to support this podcast, Check out my Patreon. For about the cost of a latte, you can have access to it all sorts of extra goodies. Every week, you’ll get exclusive interview clips with my guests that are only available to patrons. I also send out advanced notice of the books we discuss, curated reading lists, my monthly reading wrap-ups including the good, the bad and the DNFs, and essays about the reading life.
Now, back to the show.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Joanna. Welcome to the Best Book Ever Podcast
Jhoanna Belfer: Hi, Julie. I’m so happy to be here.
JS: I’m so happy to have you here. Do you know, I have not had the joy of visiting your bookstore yet? I feel like I know it because I follow you on the social medias. Will you tell my listeners about your bookstore?
JB: It’s always funny to me to describe the bookstore because it started as a pop-up. I was working full time and I got this idea to see if I could open a bookstore or start a bookstore business. I started just doing pop-up events and having a monthly book clubs at wine bars around town here in Long Beach, and did that for basically a year and a half.
JS: What prompted the urge for a pop-up? Are, were you, was there a niche of bookstores missing in Long Beach?
JB: Yeah, it was two things. There definitely is a dearth of bookstores in Long Beach. I grew up in Orange County, not too far from here, but never went to Long Beach when I was a kid or growing up. And it wasn’t until I went to grad school at Cal State Long Beach that I became aware of what a fantastic city this was. This was in 2002 to 2004. There were still a number of bookstores in the area at that time, including this giant bookstore that was downtown, which my brain is escaping me the name of right now. Acres of Books. And it was literally like a giant, old warehouse building. That was amazing. And there were a couple of other bookstores in different parts of town. There was a children’s bookstore, a couple of new and used bookstores. But in the intervening time, a lot of those stores have gone away. Acres of Books was completely closed down, and they destroyed the building. The only thing left is I think like the front retaining wall, which I think is a huge shame. A lot of the smaller bookstores that were in different commercial districts in Long Beach have have faded away. There’s still a few bookstores in the neighborhood. One of which is owned by a friend, Chris, who owns Page Against the Machine. That’s actually just up the street from our store.
JS: That is a genius name.
JB: And his marketing is. Brilliant. Like, just look at his Instagram account, if you want to be entertained. But there wasn’t anything like the bookstores I remember when I was in college. I went to college up in Northern California and, San Francisco Bay Area is a hotbed for independent bookstores and bookstore cafes, and feminist bookstores and bookstores owned by people of color. I mean, just, you name it, they have it up there. But we didn’t have that here. I worked in the hospitality industry for about 15 years, and really enjoyed it and had gotten very advanced in my career. But I had just started to think like, is this it? You know? Is this going to be my legacy? I was a very good hospitality professional, but I’m sure that that a lot of us started to rethink our priorities in the lead-up and the aftermath of the 2016 election. I think that was a really big wakeup call to myself, to a lot of friends that I have about where this country is going and what our role is in helping it to go one way or another. And in the meantime, I had gone to Cal State Long Beach, to attend their MFA program. And I have a BA background in creative writing. And, I had been going to writing conferences those whole time. Right after the election, I was able to go to a writing conference that was being held in DC, right after Trump was inaugurated. As you can imagine, there were protests. It was just a buzz in the air constantly. I was able to attend a talk with Ann Patchett, who’s a writer I love and whose book, Bel Canto gives the name to our bookstore. She’s also a bookstore editor and she was in conversation with Emma Straub, who’s also a novelist and a bookstore owner. That conversation just was amazing to me. The thing that Ann talked about that really struck me was she was approached by somebody else saying, Hey, we want to bring in a bookstore back to our community in Nashville because they had lost one of their big Indies and she initially didn’t want to do it. Because she’s a writer; she has a solitary life. I’m sure has already too many demands on her time. And she was saying how she just thought I don’t know if that would be suited to my personality, to be with people and have to be out there. But, she said that because of the election and how their bookstore became a place that people could come to and have thoughtful conversations, ask interesting questions, engage with people they didn’t know, but could still be in this community that respected one another, even if they didn’t believe the same things. She talked about how the store basically restored her faith in humanity. And I just thought that was amazing. And at the end of the Q & A somebody asked in the audience, if we could do one thing to help change the world, what could we do? And Ann said – she was obviously joking, but I took it as kind of God speaking to me – she said, if you can, you should open a bookstore. I was like, hm, okay then. I’m sure that you, Julie, have. I think every book nerd I’ve ever talked to has dreamed about having your own bookstore.
JS: My questions are printed up here, and that is literally one of my questions. Every book nerd dreams of this.
JB: I mean, we’ve watched, You’ve Got Mail 10,000 times. We’ve been to the library and you’re like, Ooh, if I had this, I would do this and that. So I just started to think about it, like, what would that be like? I did a lot of research. I connected with this great company called Paz and Associates, and they actually offer bookstore consulting. They host, I think twice a year, they host a week–long bookstore bootcamp, where you would learn all the basics of what it takes to run a bookstore. Because it’s like any business and I’ve never run a business on my own. I’ve always worked for other people. So that was very eye opening to see nuts to bolts, all of the things that you have to think of. And, and it is a lot, and it, it certainly can be overwhelming at times. But instead of being daunted at that Bootcamp, I was invigorated. I mean, here were 20 other people who want to open bookstores and pay to go to this workshop. Like that’s weird. After that workshop and meeting those people, a lot of them I now consider friends and have opened bookstores across the country. I was like, we can do this, I could do this. So I came home and started to think about what can I do in a small way, because I don’t have $100,000 or $200,000 or whatever it takes to open a bookstore as you think of it with four walls. A freestanding store. I started to think about what could I do in a small way, without a lot of investment, to just test out this idea. I just said, okay, what’s the thing I’m really good at? I feel like I’m really good at recommending books to people. And so I thought, okay, people love book clubs, but I think the two biggest complaints that I hear about them is that somebody else picked a book that you don’t like, or you really liked the book, but only two of the people actually read it. Both ways don’t really help you to have a good conversation about the book. So I thought, well, what about if we just get rid of the whole format of having to read one book at that particular time? And what if we focus on, I think what people for sure enjoy about book club, which is the community and having good conversations with people and learning about books. So that’s what I decided to do with my book club. Pre-pandemic, our book club was you paid to come and what you would get with it was that you’d fill out a little survey that told me what kind of books you liked. Each person who came got a book particularly picked out for them. And so that was like the surprise that you got at the meeting was figuring out what kind of book you got. We would meet at a wine bar, so we would have wine and cheese and then we’d hang out for an hour and talk about which book everybody else got and why I picked out those books. And then just whatever we were thinking about in general. Anyway, I begged my family and friends to sign up, and asked work people – everyone I could think of. Would you be remotely interested? And they were like, yeah, sure, I’ll try it out. So that was a great joy for me to get people’s responses. And that was super fun. You think one way about a person it’s like judging a book by its cover. You think like this person must like X, Y, Z, and then they fill out their reading survey and I’m like, Huh. I never would have guessed that. That’s really weird. And then I would pick out books based on that. It was super fun to see how people responded. Like, oh my God, I’ve been wanting to read this, or I’ve never heard of this, and then we talk about the books that I picked out for everybody. And other people would say like, Oh, that sounds really cool, I would like to read that too. Then when you add good food and drinks to the occasion, I feel like it just makes for a fun time. So that’s how we started. So I did that for, like I said, a year and a half while I was still working. I started to add on what you think of now as pop-up events. I’d schlep out a table of books to a local street fair or another business in the area that would be kind enough to let me put a table in front of their business. We got into the farmer’s market. Eventually it got to the point where I was doing more events. And then I thought, okay, if this thing is going to really become a thing, I would need to quit my job. I’d need to focus on it and make sure this is a possible thing. So, in May of 2019, I quit my job. Seeing this side of the business – it is a very tough business. The margins are incredibly low. It is a lot of work, and it is a lot of physical work, because books are heavy. But I think that every single person I’ve talked to in the bookselling industry has also been so kind and so generous with their advice. Every single one of them has said, this is a passion. This is not something you’re going to do to make it rich, but this is something that you do to for yourself and for your community and in love and appreciation of all the books that you’ve loved as a child and as an adult.
JS: So you landed on the name Bel Canto books because the spark of the idea came from that a lecture by Ann Patchett. Does she know?
JB: I had never talked to her. I mean her bookstore is called Parnassus Books and I’ve had some lovely social media conversations with whoever runs their social media account. Ann’s co-owner has reached out to me and been super, super kind. I think that she must know something at some point. I’m perfectly happy to be in this state of worshiping from afar.
JS: As we all are.
JB: Exactly. Yeah. I, I can’t say enough about Ann Patchett’s writing. That book, and also, she has a non-fiction memoir called Truth and Beauty. I don’t know if you’ve heard of that? It is spectacular. As somebody who considers herself also a writer, that book was also very eye opening and important to me as I was starting out as a poet and figuring out, like, what am I doing?
JS: Have you always been a bookworm?
JB: I think I have always been a bookworm. When I was a kid on summer vacations, that was my favorite thing to do is to have a giant stack of books next to me in bed. And when I would wake up, I would literally just roll over, pick up a book and start reading. I don’t think there’s anything quite like reading a book, because it’s so immersive. You’re in your brain. It’s just words on a page; nothing happens until you start to read it. And yet this, what, half a pound, five by eight object can take you to places that you’ve never dreamed of, can help you process things that have happened in your own life by reading somebody else who went through something similar. Certainly, I think in the pandemic, books became important to people again. They realized that in a time when you were struggling with so much, at home alone, or separated from your family, you’re not working, there’s just so much terribleness in the news, in life. People reconnected with books as a way to comfort themselves and as a way to travel when you couldn’t travel. That has always been what I have most loved.
JS: How do you decide what to put in your bookstore? Do you focus on something specific? Tell me about that.
JB: I learned so many great lessons from operating as a pop-up business. One of the things I did when I was doing pop-ups around town is that as a way of organizing myself and of being able to narrow the 12 bazillion books to a more manageable number, is that each month I would pick a theme and I, in general, follow the American Library Association’s month-long celebrations of things. This month is Asian American Pacific Islander month. And the books that are featured in the store are books by and about AAPI people. That really helps in terms of narrowing what I’m going to buy for each month. I also have a focus on books by women and people of color, which is not to say that we don’t carry books by white guys. We do. But I look out for books by women and people of color. Number one, outside of all of that, the book has to be a great story. It has to be captivating and interesting. It’s my bookstore, so it has to be something that I could see myself reading. Those are basically like my criteria for everything. People will come in and they’re like, God, you have so many subjects and so many different types of things. Yeah. Cause that’s what I’m interested in. In terms of children’s books section, it has been incredibly satisfying to pick out books that are by writers of color, because I didn’t see books like that when I was a kid.
JS: So was it through your bookstore that you came across this book that we’re talking about today? The Body Papers?
JB: Yes. When I first came across this book, I had not opened the bookstore yet. We were still doing pop-ups. I have family in the Boston area. I guess it was two years ago already. My gosh. We were able to go out in July for a month-long holiday and stayed with my in-laws. And while I was there I was doing bookstore research. I was going to various bookstores and around town in Boston.
JS: My God, that sounds like fun thing to do.
JB: Amazing, amazing. A good friend who was in that bookstore bootcamp with me, has since opened his bookstore, which is called The Silver Unicorn. They’re in Western Massachusetts, a few hours outside of Boston. I asked him, can I just come and first of all be in your bookstore and geek out? Then can I come and shadow you for a few days? Just to see how a physical bookstore operation works. And he was like, yeah, of course. Then he also was doing this event, which I had never, I was like, this is genius, why don’t I see this everywhere? He had partnered with a catering company in his town, and they were doing an author’s dinner. I’m like, okay, cool, dinner with authors. I had seen that before. But what was the twist was, there were three different authors, three different types of books and each book inspired a dish.
JB: Yeup, I that’s the sound I was waiting for! He had these three authors and I was like, that sounds genius. Cause I’m just also going to get a great dinner. Right. Sign me up! I dragged a friend of mine out there and Grace was one of the authors. I had not heard of the book before. It’s a memoir and she was just like such a fantastic presence at that dinner. The other special thing was that with each course, the authors rotated around. So, you actually got to sit with them and talk for a few minutes. Yeah. I mean, it was just phenomenal. It’s, it’s definitely one of my favorite nights of all time. And then I got to actually read the book and I was like, what?
JS: Wow. Okay. First of all, I have to know what dish was served with hers.
JB: They made Lumpia, which is Filipino eggrolls. That was the appetizer. And then they closed out the evening with a dessert that also incorporated coconut and those kinds of flavors in the dessert.
JS: Why don’t you tell my listeners what this book is about? How do you describe it when you are selling it?
JB: Well, I say that it is a book that means so much to me. It’s a story of a family. It’s a story of an immigrant family. It is a story of abuse and trauma. But I think that she talks about those things in such a – it’s like her language is so simple and so honest, but it’s not sensational. She doesn’t, I don’t think, dwell on things. The things that happened to her are horrific, horrific enough in and of themselves. And I think that she – I don’t know how you do this, but I think she found a way to write about what happened to her. She was abused by her grandfather for many years. It wasn’t just one time or a couple of times. But through her craft, she finds a way to write about it. That is, honestly, beautiful. I think that the thread that runs through this book is her belief that storytelling and being honest about our stories and sharing our stories with others is a powerful and healing force. And that we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to our family, to our community, by hiding or pretending about bad things happen.
JS: I never thought of it like that before, what a disservice that we do by only sharing the happy stories.
JB: Absolutely. And I think, tying it back to the pandemic, with the protest of last June and with the rise of anti-Asian violence and another reckoning with race in this country, I think a lot of us, a lot of our families, are having conversations that we never had before. Especially for immigrant families. The tendency, I think, is to focus on the positive. Because otherwise, you left your families, you left your culture, you left your homeland for what? To come here and be treated as not equal to other people? So I think that there is this, I think, very natural desire to want to focus on the good. To project an outward image that we’re fine, that we’re doing well. But I think that’s not all the honest truth. I think that we’re realizing that until we can actually understand and claim all of ourselves, and that means that the bad and the good, we can’t honestly move forward in a way that is positive or that’s healing. I feel like this book is like – I feel so seen by this book. I didn’t experience the same traumas that Grace did. But I think all of us can relate to moments when we felt different from other people, when we felt misunderstood, when we felt persecuted for whatever reason. I think this book just really resonates in so many ways with that. And especially as a woman, the parts that, to me, are the most heartbreaking are her young girl hood self, who is smart and athletic and confident. And then what happens to her and the break that, that causes in her life. To me, the inspiring thing is knowing that through this book, she’s been able to come – she is not fully healed. That doesn’t make all those things go away. But she’s found a way to deal with what’s happened to her and create some amazing work that is now helping other people connect with themselves and be able to tell their own stories. That, to me, is I superpower.
JS: I was really struck by her use and her concept of the idea of the body. You really do get a sense in reading it of the author as, what’s that word? Corporeal? As a physical being.
JB: And I think that’s also spread throughout the book. Even in the opening pages, where she talks about coming to the Philippines for the first time to actually live there as an adult, having grown up here in the U.S., and how she physically is in danger all the time, because cars are trying to run her over. And also just being seen. Going back to a place that should feel like home, and does in some ways, but also doesn’t in some ways. Because people see you and can tell just by looking at you, just by looking at your body and how you stand and how you carry yourself, hat you’re not really the same as them. I just feel that again and again, these themes are woven throughout the story.
JS: And she really talks about how we carry trauma. I found that so deeply moving, and painful to read.
JB: Absolutely. And it gave me tremendous empathy for people who I know in my personal life who are dealing with terrible things. Because I think it’s easy for those of us who maybe have not faced incredible trauma or severe bouts of depression or anxiety, to dismiss it or to discount it or say like, oh, it can’t be that bad. I think that’s also part of my Filipino culture and I think Grace talks about it in here. We’re taught not to wallow in your feelings because that’s seen as selfish in some ways. That you’re being soft and life is hard and you have to just get on with it and focus on being positive. My mom would say, just go for a walk. I don’t know why people are sitting around at home so depressed. They just need to go for a walk! But it’s not as simple as that. I think those chapters where she talks about after college and really, you’re with her when she’s sleeping a lot and having these nightmares and feeling incapable of doing anything. It really brings it to home. What a pervasive and all-encompassing feeling this creates in yourself, if you are trying to come to terms with some terrible episode in your life.
JS: Yeah. She even addresses that, doesn’t she? Where she, I can’t remember who she was talking to. Was it her father where she was talking about it? And he said the same thing had happened to him. A neighbor had enticed him into his house with a little candy. And then she said, and then what happened? And he said, yeah, it happened. And I got the candy and then she kind of asked the next question. And then what? And he said nothing, that’s it? It happened.
JB: Yeah. Push it away. What’s funny is – no, not funny – I gave this book to my parents, cause I’ve been passing them Filipino American books as I becoming more aware of them. That’s been a great gift is to have these conversations with your parents that prompt asking questions that probably you couldn’t ask before, or you didn’t feel comfortable asking. So I asked my mom, because in the book it’s like, once it’s found out, it’s not actually even a secret, people are not that surprised, which is just horrifying. I asked my mom about that and she said, yeah, that happens. Like we knew, as kids, they knew that there were certain people, certain men that they stayed away from. And if the guys were drinking not to go over there. I was like, What? And I was like, how old were you? She’s like, I was a kid, like 10, 11. You just don’t go down those stairs at night by yourself because the guys are down there drinking and you don’t know.
JS: Do your parents like the same books that you do when you pass on things from your bookstore?
JB: Not always. It’s really interesting to see what they enjoy and what they don’t. Some books that they really like, and I’m like, oh cool. That’s a nice thing that we can share with each other. Other books, my parents were like, that didn’t do anything for me. I’m like, okay.
JS: I don’t know anything about Filipino literature. What sort of things do you pass to your parents?
JB: So there is a huge amount of Filipino Americans, and I focus on Filipino Americans because we’re here in America and there are so many great writers coming out now. I think that’s also the huge gift that that meeting Grace has helped me. She’s helped me to connect with so many authors. She welcomed me and introduced me to her friend who runs the Boston Filipino American Book Club. They’ve been meeting in the Boston area for 15 years. That’s mind blowing to me. Their book club is specifically for writers who are Filipino American. And so I’ve just been working my way through their book lists.
JS: Who should we be looking out for? In addition to Grace, who I will follow forever. Tell me some other Filipino American authors that you’re really enjoying.
JB: So in terms of adults, some of the books that I’ve read and really loved are: there’s a writer and I think she’s New York based. Elaine Castillo has a book called America Is Not the Heart, that is a beautiful novel it’s set in the 1990s in the Bay Area. And it follows a family that in the Philippines is part of the upper-class. The husband is a doctor and he marries basically one of his nurses, and she’s of the lower class. Their family looks down on her. But then when they come to the U.S. their roles are to reversed and she becomes kind of the breadwinner of the family. And I think this is very typical of Filipino families. The women acclimate better. I think that’s also similar in some other immigrant communities. The men have trouble fitting themselves into this new society. It their families, and what happens here in the U.S. and then the husband, one of his nieces comes from the Philippines. Basically fleeing for her life because she was part of the resistance to the Marcos dictatorship and has to come to America. And so you also see things from her perspective and then the couple’s young daughter, you see things from her point of view as well. I love that book because I learned a lot of things. In the book where he focuses on the niece, who was a revolutionary, that movement against Marcos, which I didn’t know anything about. My parents had moved here by then. And, again, we didn’t talk about bad things, so I didn’t know anything about that. I really love that book for shining a light on that moment. It helped me to be able to ask my parents, so what was it like when you were in the Philippines? Did this happen to any of our family members back there? So that has been a great book to stir some conversations. Another great book that I have really loved, and this is by a local author, is a graphic novel called In Waves. He’s Filipino American. I can’t remember if he was born here or born in the Philippines. But he’s a young writer and the book is an homage to his first love, who he met in high school and unfortunately passed away of cancer. And he interweaves their love story with this history of surfing, which sounds like two weird things to put together. But you find out as the graphic novel progresses why these two things are related. It’s just beautifully illustrated.
JS: What is a way for my listeners to support your bookstore if they are not Long Beach locals, or Southern California locals?
JB: Yeah, lots of ways to support us. We have our physical inventory at the bookstore is also on our website. Or the Hangout Shop Collectives’ website. So they can see what books we physically have on the shelves there. We also have a partnership with an organization called Bookshop.org, and they were instrumental to keeping a lot of indie bookstores in business during the pandemic because lots of places had very strict closures and some places still aren’t open at all for in-store shopping. All the purchases that you make on Bookshop will benefit the bookstore of your choosing. So if you’re in upstate New York, you can pick a local bookstore to have your monies go towards. Every purchase there contributes back to us. And then we also have a partnership with LibroFM. By the way, there is a great audio book of The Body Papers, which is read by Grace Talusan. It’s phenomenal. Same thing there with LibroFM, you can choose a bookstore to support and whatever you purchase, we’ll get a percentage of.
JS: What are you reading right now?
JB: So we have four book clubs at the store. One is called our Book of the Month club and that follows whatever the theme of the month is. We have one for AAPI writers. We have a Graphic Novel book club. And then the last one is a book club that I actually co-host with a friend here in Long Beach that’s called the Burning Issues Book Club. That is a non-fiction book club that specifically focuses on environmental issues, social justice, and weighty topics. So the book that I’m reading now for that is called Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber. And it is his take on questioning the kind of jobs that we have. Specifically, they’re typically more white collar. I think like extraneous jobs that seem like you’re just pushing paper around. And the proliferation of those kinds of jobs since probably the 1950s. I can’t remember who this is attributed to, but there was this belief that once automation happened and that we became more efficient, all of a sudden, we would have all this leisure time. Americans would be able to enjoy life because we would have machines to help us and be more efficient. And instead, what’s happened is that we’ve actually used those machines and that efficiency to create more stuff. Do we really need all that stuff?
JS: Well, I want to thank you for joining me today. I knew this was going to be a wonderful conversation and I cannot wait to visit you in person. It’s in my planner, my little bookstore trip.
JB: Thank you so much, Julie. This has been such a pleasure.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms. For more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, go to our website. You can also follow us on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram. If you loved this episode, as much as I loved making it. Why not leave a review wherever you’re listening. Each review helps new listeners find my work, and I’m so grateful for your help.
Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.