Indianapolis post office boots blind ‘Broom Guy’ after 60 years

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Indianapolis post office boots blind ‘Broom Guy’ after 60 years

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INDIANAPOLIS

His name is Jim Richter, but most people around Indianapolis know him simply as “the Broom Guy.”

For more than 60 years, the blind Indianapolis man and his “tepee” of brooms have been fixtures at several Indianapolis-area post offices, including the Nora, Castleton, Bacon Station and Broad Ripple branches that are near his home on the north side.

“Have been” — that’s the operative phrase in this story.

That’s because an Indianapolis post office official told Richter in February to leave the Nora branch. In fact, the Broom Guy has been told he is no longer welcome on any other post office property in Indianapolis.

The message was delivered, the 78-year-old Richter said, by a woman with “a voice filled with vitriol.” He said she told him that if he wasn’t gone in 10 minutes, he would be forcibly removed from his spot under an overhang near the building’s entrance.

“She said I was giving the post office a bad image,” he said.

Some of Richter’s friends and customers, however, see it another way. They think his ejection leaves the post office looking bad.

Katherine Gerard of Indianapolis said she can’t understand why the “kind, pleasant” elderly man — a de facto ambassador “who was a joy to talk to” on her visits to the Nora post office — had to move from the out-of-the-way spot where he wasn’t impeding foot traffic.

“It would kind of light you up just to see him there and support him,” she said. “He was always so cheerful. He was working to earn a living. It just made you happy to talk to him. He’s just a lovely person.”

Making and selling brooms was a trade Richter was taught at the Indiana School for the Blind when he was a student in the 1950s. At one time, he said, there were as many as 150 blind broom-makers selling their wares across Indiana.

Today, Richter said he believes he is the last of that group. Blind and visually impaired Hoosiers are now more likely to get job training related to computers and technology rather than hand crafts such as broom making, piano tuning, chair caning and basket weaving, explained George Abbott, spokesman for the American Foundation for the Blind.

Richter’s absence from his usual spots outside north-side post offices has been noticed by Gerard and many others who frequent the Nora post office, sparking spirited discussion and criticism of postal officials on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Richter said he thinks the actions of the postal official run contrary to the spirit — if not the letter — of a federal law that for decades has allowed blind vendors to sell goods in government buildings.

It was that law, Richter said, that he was following when he began selling brooms at local post offices in the mid-1950s.

But a U.S. Postal Service spokeswoman said Richter’s broom sales don’t fall under the “Vending Facility” program authorized by the Randolph-Sheppard Act. In an email statement, Mary Dando provided IndyStar an overview of the program.

“The program, enacted into law in 1936, was intended to enhance employment opportunities for trained, licensed blind persons to operate facilities. The law was subsequently amended in 1954 and again in 1974 to ultimately ensure individuals who are blind a priority in the operation of vending facilities, which included cafeterias, snack bars and automatic vending machines, that are on federal property.”

Dando explained the act, however, does not undermine Postal Service regulations “which prohibit, among other things, ‘soliciting and vending for commercial purposes’ and ‘displaying or distributing commercial advertising’ on postal property.”

The questions she could not answer — and the ones that still puzzle Richter and his supporters — is why the Broom Guy had been allowed to sell brooms at post offices for decades, and what prompted the agency’s sudden change of position regarding Richter in February.

Richter said the employee who informed him he was no longer allowed on post office property said there had been a complaint about him. When he asked who had complained and the specific concern, Richter said the postal official refused to say.

IndyStar called the Indianapolis postmaster to get more information on the dispute but was directed back to Dando. She said she is the correct Postal Service spokesperson, but she did not respond to Richter’s claim that the employee treated him in a rude and unprofessional way.

Richter said he also has tried to call the Indianapolis postmaster but couldn’t get through, either. He said he may now file a complaint with federal postal officials in Washington, D.C.

His gripe, Richter stressed, is only with the woman who gave him the boot.

“I kind of got the impression this was a personal vendetta,” he said. “It is no reflection on all the other post office employees who have been so good to me over the years — just the one who acted like the north end of a horse running south.”

Richter, an Indianapolis native, was born with a hereditary condition that rendered him blind. Initially, he had about 20 percent vision — anything below 30 percent is considered legally blind in Indiana — but over time he lost even that small amount of vision.

Back in the 1950s, when Richter got his start in the broom business, he made his own brooms and sold them mainly in or near government buildings. Although vocational training programs once turned out dozens of broom salesmen who operated throughout Indiana, Richter has outlasted the competition. He says he’s now the last blind broom seller in the city. These days, he purchases his brooms from an agency that assists the blind, rather than making his own wares.

The recent kerfuffle is not Richter’s first dust-up with local postal officials. In 2011, he was briefly booted from the Castleton post office but allowed to return after Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, whose family has a long history of advocacy for the blind, wrote a letter to the local branch manager.

“Mr. Richter has been allowed to be present for many years on federal property throughout the city,” Bosma wrote. “All he asks is to use some of the shelter of the post office so he has protection from the heat of the sun in summer and from the elements in the colder seasons. He does not want to set up inside the post office. But, asking him to sell his brooms by the road as you have done in the past is not only against federal law, it is very dangerous for a visually-impaired person like Mr. Richter.”

Bosma concluded the letter with a straightforward request: “I hope you will allow Mr. Richter to sell his brooms near the post office, as allowed by federal law.”

Richter continues to sell his brooms at many of the same spots he has for decades. He marks his spot with what customers call his “tepee,” a batch of brooms tied together in a tripod shape.

Richter offers several varieties, with types and sizes ranging from a $12 whisk broom to an outdoor/industrial model that goes for $30.

“I try,” he said. “to average (selling) about 12 a day.”

Until he was kicked off post office property, Richter would move from branch to branch on the north side, driven by his son or a car service. He typically stays in each sales location for four to six hours.

He said he spent one or two days a week at the Nora location. He also sets up his display outside local businesses, including a BP gasoline station. These days, he sticks mainly to north-side sites not far from his home.

The business has helped Richter support himself and his family, supplementing his Social Security income. But just as important, it has brought him in contact with a wide cross-section of the community and opened the door to many new friendships.

“I don’t make all that much selling brooms,” he said. “It’s my relationship with the people that I really enjoy. I’m a people person. That’s what’s kept my business going for all these years.”

Whether or not he gets back to his familiar spot in Nora or at the other local post offices, Richter said he’ll continue to take whatever life throws at him.

“I’ve gotten to the point,” he said, “that I take a situation like (the post office ejection) and think that’s just God testing me again.”

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