If you’re one of Keith’s customers, count yourself lucky.
The Contributor vendor, who has been selling the paper since 2011, often gifts his customers with fresh eggs or vegetables from his landlord’s backyard.
Keith helps take care of the chickens, and, in exchange, receives eggs.
“I’m able to share eggs with a lot of my regular customers because 15 chickens make a lot of eggs,” he says. “I got them for free – all I did was help feed the chickens. I’m not going to charge anyone for something that I got for free.”
He shares another example of what he calls the “non-monetary exchange” he has with some of his customers, who he refers to as friends.
“A lady, Lynn, she makes homemade bread and jams. We’re about to have our fourth annual crab apple picking. I’ll pick her crab apples so she can make her jams. We’re always trading,” he says, adding that on Mother’s Day he purchased 48 loaves of Lynn’s bread to hand out to his customers who are moms.
“Some days I do more talking than selling,” Keith admits, chuckling. He sells at Murfreesboro Pike and Hamilton Church Road. “It’s about 90 seconds to two and a half minutes at the stoplight, so you can have a pretty long conversation. Having been a waiter before, I remember details about everyone.”
After growing up in Michigan, Keith spent time overseas in the army – serving as a cook and on border patrol in Germany – then came to Nashville in 1983 right after getting out of the military.
After losing his job in March of 2011, Keith couldn’t find work in town.
“I heard some vendors on the city bus talking about where they had worked that day and how much they had made,” Keith recalls. “I had never held a sign or done anything like that, and it was getting to the point where I had to do something.
“When I first started selling the paper, I would get sick to my stomach just thinking that I was holding something up on the street, but then I got to realize that I’m buying these papers and reselling them. I’m not begging.”
Keith has been on his spot for five years, and says he now has 150 regular customers. He attributes his success and customer relationships to a consistent positive attitude.
“I want to thank my customers. If I’m gone a day or two, they know it and ask where I was. I appreciate that I’m thought of enough to be wondered about,” he says.
Many people in Keith’s sales area also know another vendor, Nicki, who has shared the spot with Keith for many years. Keith says that Nicki recently got a full-time job at McDonald's and a car.
“I’m glad for Nicki that he got his job. I miss him,” Keith said. “He has sold papers six hours a day since he’s (working) full-time.”
Keith says that many customers have inquired where Nicki is since he’s not at their spot as often.
The tag-team vendor pair became especially well-known in the area after each spent time in the hospital – Nicki was shot by two teenagers at a gas station; Keith was hit by a car while walking to go sell The Contributor.
Nicki and Keith held down the spot while each other was recovering, even helping each other out financially as the hospital stays meant they weren’t able to earn money selling the paper.
For Keith, his hospital stay also illuminated the relationship between him and his customers. “A lot of my customers drove all the way to Lebanon to see me when I was in the hospital for 50 days. A few of them made multiple visits. They offered to pay my rent,” he says. “The first week I sold papers after getting out of the hospital, I was surprised that over 100 people would jump out of their car and hug me before the light changed.
“It made me feel good to be thought of that well.”
Keith experienced homelessness after moving out of a “place full of alcohol and drug use.” He camped out for a few months in 2012 before finding stable housing with a roommate. The roommate later built an addition onto his house where Keith now lives.
“In 220 weeks, my rent has been on time. I’ve never been late; I’ve never had to give an excuse,” he says.
Recently, Keith’s rent increased, but he says his paper sales still enable him to pay his rent and bills, and buy food.
“I don’t get assistance from anything else,” he adds “I’m still able to put some in savings. I’m glad that (The Contributor) caused me to have a reliable source of income.”
Keith has some long-standing injuries that make him unable to work a steady job but do not qualify him for disability assistance.
However, he emphasizes that selling the paper is work, which he does five or six days a week. “Ten hours a day standing up to me is work, I don’t care what you say,” he says.
Keith also volunteers at Second Harvest Food Bank one day a week, an opportunity he heard about at church. In his free time, he enjoys gardening.
While Keith is well-known to his customers, he says he has had a lot of new people asking him about The Contributor. “New people are interested even though I’ve been selling so long. Three or four times a week, I get asked, ‘What is this paper?’
“I try to explain it in 90 seconds; I basically tell them, ‘This is what keeps me from being homeless. I buy them and pay my rent.’”