How Short North sex shop The Garden became a protest hub

Owner Lacey Thompson and manager Doug Cuckler lead a ragtag crew of self-described 'freaks and geeks' who have doled out aid and provisions during recent demonstrations.

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Doug Cuckler, left, and Lacey Thompson outside of the Garden in the Short North

Early afternoon on a recent weekday, the streets outside of Short North sex shop The Garden were relatively quiet, with just a handful of passersby navigating the under-construction sidewalks— part of an ongoing streetscaping project that has added an unfortunate hitch to the retailer’s coronavirus-driven curbside service plans, being that the shop is currently lacking a curb.

Inside, however, the Garden was atwitter, employees working diligently alongside a half-dozen volunteers, some of whom organized a pair of 6-foot folding tables that were positioned alongside the racks of lingerie and stocked with prepackaged snacks, including granola bars, Pop Tarts, raisins, etc. Gallon jugs of water and myriad bottles of dish soap lined the floor beneath the tables, while dozens of cases of water were piled high on the north wall of the store.

The provisions, nearly all of which were donated, have been providing sustenance and aid to protesters since the first weekend of the demonstrations, which were ignited by George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police but are fueled by Columbus’ own histories with racial injustice and police misconduct

Of course, not everyone who enters the shop is in need of water, food or medical treatment, whether from exposure to pepper spray or being on the receiving end of the rubber and wooden projectiles fired into crowds by police.

“Are you here to volunteer or are you a customer?” a masked attendee asks one couple who enters the shop.

“We’re here to look around.”

We’ve got a customer up here!” 

Before browsing, however, the couple makes a cash donation to the cause— yet another instance of the purely organic, community-driven efforts that have recently transformed the shop into an unlikely protest hub.

“The last couple of days, especially, it’s been like, ‘Wow, where did this come from? How did it become what it is?’” said Thompson, flanked by store manager Doug Cuckler, aka Wonder Doug, for an early June interview during which she traced The Garden’s current involvement to a seemingly spontaneous decision. “Friday night (May 29) was pretty chaotic, so we wanted to come down and check on the store. … One of our kids was pepper sprayed pretty badly, so we got her cleaned up and took her home. At that point it was like, ‘We have to do something, because this isn’t going to stop,’ and we didn’t see anyone else doing anything.”

After waking the next morning, Cuckler put out a call on his Facebook page. “I think the general idea was we were far enough away [from the center of the protests] that if anyone needed anything on their way down we could provide it, but also close enough that if they needed to get a friend here quickly they could,” he said. “And things just spiraled from there.”

The immediate response nearly overwhelmed the shop, with volunteers donating water, food, medical supplies and time. Thompson and Cuckler estimated that more than 100 volunteers had passed through the shop in recent weeks, including many street medics, some of whom logged upwards of 12-hour days, ready to treat any injured protesters who found their way to the store.

Doug Cuckler, left, and Lacey Thompson inside of the Garden

Generally, Thompson said, things have remained fairly calm, with daytime hours spent passing out thousands of bottles of water to protesters making their way south to Downtown from the Short North. This is in marked contrast to the chaotic late nights that shaped the earliest days of the protest, when the streets were relatively peaceful “until they weren’t,” Thompson said.

“Saturday night (May 30) it got scary, and it all happened so fast,” Thompson continued. “We were out front handing out ear plugs and we could hear the LRAD (a sound cannon used by police to disperse crowds) all the way up here. … That night we treated about 30 medical emergencies, including one of our kids who got hit with one of the wooden bullets and possibly broke her foot. There were a lot of chemical burns. … Another of our friends was shot in the foot by a wooden bullet and didn’t know it, and his shoe was filling up with blood, so the medics bandaged him up. After we got everyone home, we all messaged each other like, ‘I’m home safe. Are you safe?’ ‘I’m safe.’”

The Garden’s emergence as a source of comfort and aid amid the unrest might seem unlikely, at least at first blush, but in many ways it’s an extension of the community-first ethos on which the business is built. “It’s not all me, and it’s not all Doug. It’s a community of freaks and geeks coming together and supporting our community in our neighborhood,” said Thompson. “Somebody had to do it, and there was no one else stepping up … It was the porn store and the churches.”

In our initial interview, Thompson said the Garden’s involvement in the protests would continue “until we’re not needed anymore,” though a recent public Facebook post by the owner suggested current events have fueled a larger metamorphosis from which there is no return. 

“We don’t think we can ever go back to just being a retail store. … Honestly, we never really were, but we need the time to figure out the next move,” she wrote, before pivoting to a bit of advice worth absorbing in the midst of this current societal upheaval. “Maybe take this time to listen and amplify voices, and [educate yourself on] what you can do in your own way to move things forward. We love you.”

This story originally appeared on Columbus Alive