Louisville bookstore owner champions underrepresented voices

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) —

About a year ago, the upstairs space above Nanny Goat Bookstore, nestled inside a rehabbed church on Clay Street, was packed with people standing shoulder to shoulder for a first-of-its-kind “Queer poetry slam.”

After all the registered speakers had completed their readings, Sarah Gardiner, owner of the independent bookstore in downtown Louisville, opened the mic to anyone who had something to say.

Person after person came to the front to read poetry and stories about their queer journeys, said Hilary Olp, who was there that night.

It was one of the most beautiful things she’d ever been a part of, the 34-year old Kentucky native said of the experience inside the former religious space.

“And that night, it felt very much like what church should have been, with love and support and everyone sharing their testimonies,” Olp said. “I remember crying when I got home that night because I was so overwhelmed.”

Olp read that night, too. It was just a couple of months before she finally came out to her parents. She read deeply personal poetry about her own struggles as a queer child in an evangelical Christian home.

After she shared her story, Gardiner hugged her. She told Olp she loved her work, that she believed in it, and that a lot of people could relate to it.

A year later, Gardiner is in the process of publishing Olp’s first book: “Dear Diary & everyone else.” It’s a memoir-style collection of poetry about queerness from a writer who never imagined she’d publish anything. It’s exactly the kind of voice Gardiner hoped to amplify when she launched Nanny Goat Press, a tech-centric publishing house focused on telling the stories of marginalized people like her.

Gardiner, an East Louisville native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy, never imagined she would someday open a bookstore, let alone launch a publishing house. But at 26 years old, she’s already become an influential pillar in Louisville’s LGBTQ community and a champion for underrepresented voices.

Gardiner never had a linear plan or a particular career path in mind. As a kid, she thought she’d be the first female president. (She laughs at that now). Always an avid reader, she knew writing would be part of her life. Gardiner paid her way through college — at American University and the University of Maryland — by ghostwriting fiction novels, and later became editor in chief of a small publishing house in Washington, D.C.

During her time there, Gardiner read a lot of manuscripts and advanced copies for books and noticed a trend: most of what she was reading was written by white, “scholarly” writers with MFA’s.

“I wasn’t finding black authors, POC writers, LGBTQ authors,” Gardiner said. MFA writing programs were often elitist, white-washed and created barriers for people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, she said.

So when Gardiner moved back to Louisville in 2018 to support her ill mother, the journey to “Nanny Goat” began.

Gardiner purchased an 80% stake in a failing bookstore in La Grange for just a few thousand dollars. On its way out of business, 8,000 books were destroyed by water damage in the bookstore and after four or so months, Gardiner decided to take all the inventory, close the shop and open Nanny Goat in NuLu.

She had little money, no capital and didn’t qualify for a business loan. But she took a leap. Today, the small, cozy and unsuspecting bookstore is marked by a large rainbow flag on Clay Street. She named it after the alleyway to the north, called Nanny Goat Strut. In less than two years, the bookstore has sold 12,000 books.

But it hasn’t been easy.

“I drive a 20-year-old car,” Gardiner said. “Some months I can’t pay my personal rent let alone the lease on the space for the bookstore. But when I started, I just imagined throwing spaghetti at the wall and seeing what stuck.”

Though Gardiner doesn’t call Nanny Goat Books a queer bookstore, the small shop is “queer-owned, queer-operated and hosts queer events.” Some of its best-sellers are among a wall of queer-themed books.

“Nanny Goat Books has provided a pretty cool queer safe space for people in Louisville,” said Spencer Jenkins, the creator of Queer Kentucky, a locally-based online storytelling platform.

Jenkins remembers the night he and Gardiner — now close friends and frequent business partners — collaborated on their first poetry slam night.

“We were laying on the bookstore floor on random second-hand pillows and blankets (it was BYOBlanket night) and I remember us just saying 'we are actually creating something here that we’ve never seen before,‘” Jenkins said.

Gardiner wants to keep creating that “something” more, but the coronavirus pandemic has thrown her one-woman operation a curveball. While she announced the launch of Nanny Goat Press last year, she’s been unable to secure enough funding to truly get it off the ground.

Nanny Goat Press was supposed to publish three books in April, including Olp’s memoir, which will release under her pen-name Lawrence Hart.

“It’s been a struggle the last few months because I am responsible for these authors’ income,” Gardiner said. “We need to put money back in the hands of marginalized artists because people that make money in this industry can’t just be wealthy white writers.”

Despite the current delays, Gardiner wakes up in the mornings thinking about her favorite moment in the publishing process: sending the proof of a book to a new author.

Olp immediately started to cry the day she received hers. She never intended to be a writer.

“It felt real and tangible,” Olp said. “Up until then, I had a hard time believing it was happening. ... I know how lucky and privileged I am for this to be my experience. But I never felt like a dollar sign for (Gardiner.) She just wants to amplify voices that in the past haven’t been amplified.”

Olp hopes that her story can be a “lighthouse” for people who have been through similar life experiences, for young queer women to know they’re not alone.

And Gardiner’s publishing house is offering that platform.

“I’m just a channel through which the stories get out,” Gardiner said. “It’s not my voice, I’m just holding the microphone.”