Not all small businesses are created equally.
A national census recently reported that only 17.7% of bookstores in the United States are operated by minorities. Another metric from County Business Patterns reveals that the amount of bookstores in the country has dropped over 50% for the past two decades, down to a total of 6,045 nationwide in 2019—and that doesn’t even account for closures during COVID.
But for Josiah Luis Alderete and Tân Khánh Cao, the duo behind Medicine for Nightmares/Medicina para Pesadillas—a bookstore and art gallery that is dedicated to showcasing and uplifting the Bay Area’s diverse voices—those daunting numbers don’t deter them from carving out a space that reflects their personal and communal values.
“The bookstore is a portal and a space for connection,” says Alderete, a poet whose book, Baby Axolotls & Old Pochos, was published by Black Freighter Press in 2021. “It’s not just a bookstore. We hang, we kick it, we create, we sustain art, we remember cultura. For the Mission, that has been going on for years. The most obvious thing for a culture or group or movement is to teach the next generation, so it continues.”
The shop on 24th Street was previously Alley Cat Bookstore & Gallery, which Kate Razo sold to Alderete and Khánh Cao last year. The pair collectively took over and remodeled the space within a whirlwind of two months (Nomadic Press founder J.K. Fowler was also pivotal in launching Medicine for Nightmares, but he is no longer involved). With backgrounds in visual art, poetry, and community advocacy, Khánh Cao and Alderete have extensive experience with small, local institutions: Alderete once owned a taco shop in the North Bay and was employed at City Lights Books, while Khánh Cao worked prior at City Lights and The Luggage Store art gallery.
Still, it hasn’t been easy maintaining a commerical property in one of the nation’s most expensive regions. Despite their joint passions and commitment to preserving an inclusive literary haven for others—like hosting the Speaking Axolotl poetry reading and open mic series—there have been many real-world obstacles and systemic factors that Khánh Cao and Alderete continue to navigate, especially as members of underrepresented groups in an economically ruthless San Francisco.
“The business part is the killer,” Alderete tells 48 Hills. “The arts are thriving in our space. We ain’t gonna make money selling books. It’s a labor of love, a leap of faith. Being in the store and coming up short a lot of times has been a normal thing. Finances? It’s hard to move them around for a small business, especially arts-based. At the end of the day it’s about money and we don’t always have that. But we have that faith that we’re doing what we need and that the bills will get paid. So far it has worked.”
In the end, however, these poets and artists have proven to be resilient—just like the residents of the Mission they represent—by leaning deeply into the fabrics around them. A commemorative t-shirt is available for anyone interested in supporting their mission (no pun intended).
Their collective love and grassroots efforts were on full display for the store’s one-year anniversary this past Saturday—which included a fundraiser and release of the store’s limited-edition poetry anthology, Portales: A Medicina Para Pesadillas Poetry Anthology. New poems from an array of poets who have been integral to the bookstore’s emergence and continuance are included in the work—and many of them were present for a year’s worth of celebration.
Son Jarocho music group Colectivo Calle Son provided a live Veracruzano-style soundtrack to complement an appearance by artist-writer El Siete (also known as L7 or Chris Cuadrado, the founder of For the People Art Collective) as the night’s DJ. It’s young Latinx artists like El Siete who are often on-hand to help out with the store’s audio and technological needs.
The intergenerational tapestry of poets who performed work from the anthology were the stars of the show though, sharing words and wisdom that range in topics from self-empowerment, indigenous connectivity, spiritual healing, gentrification and dark humor.
“In a time of privatization of public forums and closures of community spaces, this bookstore is an act of communal magic,” Luboviski-Acosta, a Mission-residing poet who is also Alderete’s niece, said. “Part info shop, part literary botanica, part auntie and tío’s house—I genuinely cannot believe such a lotus was able to blossom from the mud of late capitalism and the pandemic.”
Among the powerhouses who have become pillars as members of—and beyond-–the Medicine for Nightmares familia was Mimi Tempesst. Her work evokes the effortless verbal dreamstate of San Francisco’s current Poet Laureate, Tongo Eisen-Martin, while building with the political fervor and technical precision of the late poet, June Jordan—who launched the still-active Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley in 1991 for underrepresented students and community members. In short, Tempesst is a force—and one who Alderete has identified as part of the bookstore’s most representative figures.
“This is a celebration of our space,” Alderete says. “It’s a creation of this part of Mission literature but it’s also a celebration of having our familia around. Poets like Mimi and Tatiana come in and do their thing. Musicians [like Colectivo Calle Son] practice here. El Siete comes in. It’s a celebration, just like any another day with the familia coming through.”
Once the part ends, the bookstore will resume back to its funky, unassuming self. A group of teenagers might hover near the front of the store, flipping through indie zines and revolutionary art paraphernalia. A Latina mom decked out in a San Francisco Giants jacket might push her stroller up to the cash register to greet her homies. An older couple might wander in and get lost in the back of the store, only to emerge with a stack of books to take home for the chilly winter night.
Despite the odds—or maybe because of them—Medicine for Nightmares will remain as a refuge of music, poetry, laughter, and comida for anyone who needs it.