by Ilona Westfall
An adult shop might seem like an unlikely spot for a haven of mutual aid in the midst of ongoing racial justice protests in Columbus. But as things took a violent turn in late May, Lacey Thompson, owner of The Garden–the queer-friendly lingerie and toy purveyor in the city’s Short North neighborhood–stepped up to turn the shop into a spot to help protestors. We talked to Thompson about how she transformed The Garden into a community protest base: handing out donated supplies like water, food and sunscreen, and rinsing pepper spray from protestors’ eyes.
How did you manage with the shop being closed due to COVID-19?
We have a private Garden family Facebook page, where we would keep in contact, keep each other up with funny memes or whatever, and recipes. A lot of them were making baked goods and doing porch drop-offs for each other. We have different messenger groups that we can post the schedule in, or if anyone needs anything. Like I just posted that one of our friends of the store is going to the food pantry, and wanted to know if any of the kids need anything.
We would still post on our Facebook and Instagram that we’re closed, but utilize our website. We were closed for a few weeks and the bills didn’t stop. So we decided to start doing curbside pickup which was hard work. And then unfortunately they took our curb away and our sidewalk. We haven’t been without construction for probably four or five years now because Stonewall had their rebuild. So we got hit with more construction and when they took our sidewalks away, I’m left with a giant pit and then it rained a lot and our basement flooded. Right after we were able to open our doors to customers, we flooded and we literally had to close the basement for a day and shop vac it all out. It’s been a wild 2020.
How did The Garden become a hub for protesters?
I don’t know how it happened. I’m still trying to wrap my head around it. Friday night [May 29], there was a lot of violence, especially on our block. One of our employees was down here protesting. She had gotten pepper sprayed really, really bad, and didn’t have a way home. Me and the general manager stopped at the gas station, picked up a couple of gallons of milk and water, got her cleaned up, and took her home. That’s when we were like, “We have to do something. I don’t know what it is, but we have to be here.”
So we picked up cases of water, a packet of band aids and Neosporin. Store manager Doug Cuckler, Wonder Doug, has been with me the whole time and has a pretty strong following on social media, and put the call out there saying that we were taking donations to help keep protestors safe. And it exploded. Like mountains of donations. One person we didn’t even know dropped off 20 cases of water. We’ve been putting a tent out back for drop-off donations because they were just coming in too fast. Hundreds of volunteers come through. Even a couple of old boyfriends of mine have been volunteering and handing out water and sorting supplies.
We’ve been outside all day long, saying, “Hey, are you going to the protest? Here, take a bag. It’s got goggles, earplugs, saline solution, baby wipes to try to get anything off the skin.” When I hugged the girl that we picked up Friday night, where my skin touched hers just started burning. We’ve had cyclists come up, they’ll load a bag of food or medical supplies and get it down to the street. We’ve been in contact with medics, trying to see what they need at the front lines. I had a friend that sent me a message that said, “Hey, you’ve got 2,000 marching your way, be ready.”
So we had volunteers on both sides of High Street handing out bottles of water and goggles and earplugs. And if people were hurt, we had at least three medics at one time. Saturday we probably helped 30 to 50 people that got injured. One of our friends didn’t know he got hit in the foot with a wooden bullet and his shoe was filling with blood. This was Saturday night, and they had enacted the curfew and it was about 9:45. My medics were working on it and trying to get it wrapped and get him home safely. I just couldn’t have anybody out past curfew. I didn’t want that on my conscience if they got hurt or arrested because they were here helping us. So I made sure everybody was out before curfew, but it was a mad dash. We had a police presence here that night and it went south really fast. I threw the locks on the doors, got in who I could get in, and got out of here. It’s really calmed down a lot, which is wonderful, because everyone needed a break. There’s still protests and we’re still going to be here handing out supplies and getting them where they need to go.
You stepping up to help protesters is very much aligned with the values that you’ve set out for The Garden. Can you talk about what those values are and how this aligns with them?
We’re very giving. I learned that from my parents; they’ve always been so supportive in the community. Doug does a seasonal variety show and he picks charities that we could donate to and help out. It’s a long line of different organizations: Equitas, Kaleidoscope, Huckleberry House, and all proceeds go to them. He’s also done one for my parents’ recovery center, Jacob’s House. [The shows have] raised over $13,000 for different organizations.
We just love giving back and no one was doing it. So we stepped up and we had to help the people in our community. Even if they weren’t from our community, they’re still Ohioans. They’re still people. They still need someone to back them and keep them safe. So that’s what we did. Any supplies that are left over are going to different organizations that need it. I learned it from my parents to give back and if you support your community, the community will support you. And why not the local adult store?
- Learn more about (and support!) The Garden by visiting their website.
Ilona Westfall is a Cleveland-based freelance writer. When she’s not penning articles for a variety of northeast Ohio publications, she’s roller skating with Burning River Roller Derby, rolling d20s with her D&D group, or getting muddy in the woods. Follow her on twitter @IlonaWestfall.