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The San Francisco Standard

Know Your Neighbors

Medicine for Nightmares 

Seeks to Cure the Ill of White Supremacy
Written by Julie Zigoris
Published Oct. 09, 2022 • 11:12am

Is there a better salve for insomnia than a good book? Screens give you jitters. Pages soothe you. Yet the newest bookstore in the Mission, Medicine for Nightmares, speaks to calamities much larger than sleeplessness.

“The store is named for the nightmare we’re living in,” said co-owner Tân Khánh Cao, “which is largely controlled by a white power structure.” 

Co-owner Josiah Luis Alderete picks up where his business partner leaves off, explaining that in books one can find a potent antidote for our societal malaise. “As a Chicano, literature has been medicine against the nightmares,” he explained. “That’s what you can find in here.”  

The explanation beautifully embodies how the co-owners work in tandem, a graceful pair who hug, finish each other’s thoughts and balance each other out. They like to joke that they are a couple—but only insofar as they have given birth to this big, demanding baby of a bookstore that takes up all their time.

The shop opened last November, after its previous owner—long-time San Francisco bookseller Kate Razo—decided to sell Alley Cat Books. Alderete and Cao took over along with J.K. Fowler, founder of the Oakland-based Nomadic Press, who has since left the bookstore to return to his other projects.

The duo, who both previously worked at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, are addressing a dearth of diversity in their industry by offering the community books that represent the people living here—not as a niche or a separate section, but as general literature and medicina. 

“It’s tiring, all the excuses that have been used,” Cao said, “watching a bunch of people talking about doing the work without doing anything to change it.” 

Cao and Alderete have created a vital and already beloved space for the community. Kids come in to hang out and read, and the store is hosting 22 events this month alone. There’s music, poetry readings and a gallery space with exhibits that change over almost every month. 

“It feels so good to be the neighborhood bookstore,” Cao said. 

Alderete believes that North Beach—because of City Lights and its association with the Beats—has been mistakenly identified as the literary neighborhood of San Francisco. 

“The Mission is the literary heart of the city,” he said, pointing to former San Francisco poet laureate Alejandro Murguía (2012-2015); comedian, writer and performer Marga Gomez; the Flor Y Canto Literary Festival, along with other nearby cultural institutions like Galería de la Raza and Brava Theater.

When a San Francisco State University student comes in for a class about community organizing in the back, Alderete doesn’t hesitate to welcome her in.

“Es su casita,” he said.

Medicine for Nightmares - portrait

Special powers

Axolotl and a donkey.

Arch enemies

White power structure—all that colonial shit.

Weaknesses

None.

Lineage

Spaces in the Mission that have provided literary sanctuary, a marronage.

Current mission

To bring literature to the people and create a space where people see themselves on the shelves.

‘The store is named for the nightmare of white power structures we’re living in. Literature has been medicine against this nightmare.’
Medicine for Nightmares - portrait