The sun set beyond the white brick walls of Story Louisville last Thursday, and Sarah Gardiner prepared to launch her own publishing house.
“Oh, I’m terrified,” Gardiner, 25, said, laughing. “I know I am not supposed to, but I was going to go up and there and be like, ‘Hi I’m a writer. This is not my format.’”
The event, hosted by local nonprofit Wild Accelerator, was focused on the launch of its six women-led local businesses, but it was also a celebration. A DJ played Lizzo and Janelle Monae’s women-centric anthems as aerialist Anne Miller poured shots of Willett bourbon from an aerial hoop. Attendees ate vegan macaroni and pink donuts provided by local business as they mingled. There was laughter, dancing and a lot of nerves from Wild’s entrepreneurs.
After years of dreaming and 10 weeks of preparation and planning, Gardiner took the podium in a tailored black suit and introduced the crowd to Nanny Goat Press, a tech-centric publishing house focused on telling the stories of marginalized people like her.
As a young girl growing up in Louisville, Gardiner devoured books like Nancy Drew and Harry Potter from the time she could read. But as a young lesbian, she didn’t see herself in the stories she loved. When she came out at 18 as a college student in Washington D.C., she immersed herself in the local LGBTQ+ community. The first time she saw a lesbian romance in a movie, she sat in the theater and cried.
“This is it,” Gardiner said she remembers thinking. “This is what I’ve been missing. It was just so lovely to see the thing I was feeling on screen, finally.”
At 23, she moved back to Louisville. She felt burnt out by the D.C. hustle, but missed the LGBTQ+ arts and culture she experienced there. In March of 2017, she opened Nanny Goat Books on Clay Street in NuLu. The store has since become a hub of LGBTQ+ life with its frequent book swaps and LGBTQ+ poetry nights. Gardiner has sold more than 12,000 books at Nanny Goat since opening its doors two years ago.
“If we’re doing that on that scale in 700 square feet, what can we do on a major tech platform?” Gardiner said.
So she decided to apply her seven years of publishing experience, during which she published Pulitzer-nominees, New York Times bestsellers and former Kentucky poet laureates. Gardiner continued working for a publishing house while running Nanny Goat Books, all the while dreaming of starting her own press where she could tell the stories of marginalized authors.
Enter Wild Accelerator, which describes itself as a “micro-accelerator and startup initiative geared towards early stage and idea-stage female entrepreneurs.” The nonprofit helps these entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground.
“She’s lived so many lives,” said Amanda Bates, Wild’s executive director. “I feel like she’s a cat because she’s probably on her 15th life already.”
As Gardiner’s newest venture, Nanny Goat Press is focused on what she calls “creative equity”: granting marginalized groups access to all the tools of the publishing world under one roof.
“We’re really promoting the voices of queer authors, people of color, people who can’t go to an MFA because of socioeconomics,” Gardiner said.
Gardiner is in the process of signing two authors and has three others in progress. Each author represents a different genre, ranging from fiction to poetry and nonfiction essays. All the authors are people of color or members of the LGBTQ+ community. They’re also all Kentuckians. Gardiner said it was important for her to stay in touch with the big city while maintaining and fostering Kentucky’s literary heritage.
Bates said Gardiner’s commitment to uplifting the LGBTQ+ community in Louisville made her stand out as a candidate among the 82 business pitches Wild received.
“She really believes Louisville can be bigger and better than it is and she’s willing to stand arm-in-arm to be part of that fight,” Bates said.
Gardiner’s goal is to secure enough funding to print the first round of books by the year’s end. She plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign in the next several days and pause Nanny Goat Books’ in-person retail operations until the new year while she launches the press. She also has plans to launch a subscription box in 2020. But it’s all toward one goal of sharing underrepresented stories with others.
“Stories are vital because they’re the way we can get in touch with the world and each other,” Gardiner said. “When you’re growing up, that’s how you learn that other people have the same feelings as you. It makes you feel a hell of a lot less alone.”