On April 21, 2020, in his hospital room at New York–Presbyterian, 70-year-old Tom Burgess asked a nurse to turn up his oxygen so he could make one of the last phone calls of his life. Burgess had COVID-19 and would soon be put on a ventilator, but he had to speak to a bookseller.
Veronica Liu, founder of the Word Up Community Bookshop in Washington Heights, was the person he called that day. They had gotten to know each other after Burgess began volunteering at the store in 2011. Born in Michigan, Burgess was an archetypal New Yorker of the Village Voice era: He moved here in 1975 and led a rich, if sometimes precarious, life. He hadn’t married or started a family, and for years he was a member and sometime instructor at the Yoga Institute. He’d also been an adjunct anthropology instructor at colleges and universities across the city for decades and was active in union campaigns for the rights of adjunct workers. In his later years, even after reaching retirement age, he continued to teach at the Borough of Manhattan Community College despite vision problems and leukemia treatments. He might have stopped earlier, his sister Barbara Hendrick told me, but he needed to teach a minimum number of courses to keep his health insurance.
One thing Burgess was known for by those he knew — and what tugged at him before his final phone call to Liu — was the asteroid field that filled up his orbit, his vast collection of books and music. For many years, Tom had felt compelled to collect novels, academic journals, travel guides, magazines, volumes of poetry, records, CDs, audio cassettes, VHS tapes, DVDs, comic books, in addition to odds and ends like a board game, a trash can, a bread-maker, back issues of the Voice, anything anyone might someday be marginally interested in. He lived by a philosophy he called “recirculation,” a process of gathering and reusing objects based on the idea that capitalism had already produced enough to go around. So he proceeded through his life aspiring to be a matchmaker between readers and their perfect books, even though more often than not he struggled to get them to meet.
Burgess’s objects, tens of thousands of them, came to fill every cubic centimeter of space around him. He kept a cart of books outside his apartment door from which neighbors could choose. And he used the bookstore, Liu recalled, as a pickup spot for things he wanted to give away: “You’d open a box, there would suddenly be a bunch of stuff that was not at all to do with books. You’d wait a minute and then someone would walk in and say, ‘Oh yeah, Tom left a bunch of coats for my dad.’ It would always be related to Tom.”
“I guess Tom would be offended to be called a hoarder, but I know that’s what people would say,” his sister told me. “You look at [his apartment] and you’d have to say that. But everything he had, or most of it, I think he had originally because he intended to pass it on to the right person.” Indeed, he didn’t just accumulate it — Burgess read many of the books he collected and listened to many of the CDs (although a friend reported that his apartment had no record player to play any of the thousands of LPs at the time of his death).
The people closest to him knew the things he collected had become an impediment — boxes of books filled much of the floor space in his one-bedroom apartment, forcing anyone coming through the front door to step sideways and around a bookcase to even reach the foyer. He had repurposed dozens of wooden wine crates as shelves, stacking them unsecured against the walls and filling them up to the ceilings with books. His kitchen was nearly unusable; the oven couldn’t be opened because of the piles, and there was a bookcase in the middle of the room. The living room was barely passable, and Burgess’s bed was cradled on three sides by crates and shelves of his favorite books and CDs. Even then, the apartment was unable to contain it all, so it spilled over into four storage units, the costs of which sapped his slim income.
Those who knew of Burgess’s living situation worried that the shelves he had fashioned might collapse onto him or become a fire hazard. They also worried that his accumulating possessions weighed on his psyche; for every item he gave away, he took in five more. There was interpersonal strife, too. Disagreements arose at Word Up over Burgess’s habits because he was loath to throw anything out and tended to regard imperfections — handwriting in an old math workbook, for example — as an added value, rather than a reason for tossing an item away. A friend whom Burgess had once offered a place to stay was surprised to find he was given a mattress to sleep on that was lifted five feet off the ground by bookshelves and boxes. “I think about how in cartoons when there’s, like, an angel on one shoulder and the Devil on the other shoulder and they’re trying to help a person come to a decision,” his friend Gio Andollo told me. “Tom didn’t have that character in his psyche that was like, ‘Maybe we shouldn’t keep this.’ It ended up spinning out of control.”
For anthropologist Bernadette Bucher, Burgess’s close friend and colleague, his practice of preserving—exalting, really—the mundane, tattered, and obscure had a deeper meaning. French academic Claude Lévi-Strauss once described anthropologists as the “ragpickers of history,” those who collect what historians would put in the garbage, Bucher told me. Burgess was the anthropologist and ragpicker of his own life, she said. “You see people accumulating junk stuff. And for the layperson, all this is junk, things you throw into the garbage. But the other side of the coin in his case is that he was preserving things that may disappear because everything now is in digital.”
During his final phone call to Liu in April, Burgess considered, for what may have been the first time, relinquishing some control over his outsize collection. The conversation, Liu told me, was part moment of reckoning and part denial. “He said, ‘I’m telling you what, in case I’m ever sedated’ — he never said, ‘In case I don’t come out of this alive,’” Liu recalled. She agreed to care for his things no matter what happened, and on June 3, Burgess died and his asteroids began to crash to Earth.
Over a period of months, in an effort led by Liu and assisted by dozens of Word Up volunteers, Burgess’s collection was packed up and moved from his Inwood apartment to the common area of a co-op building at 876 Riverside Drive in Washington Heights. The space now functions as a pop-up store where Tom’s enormous collection is displayed much in the way he might have planned it if he’d had more room and time. Post-it notes to friends in Burgess’s handwriting still cling to the covers of many books, and most things are still organized in his makeshift wine-crate shelving. The store is open to the public on Sundays from 3 to 6 p.m. and Wednesdays from five to eight.
The breadth of Burgess’s interests is obvious in the collection: There are books on music, birds, Marxism, travel, poetry, racism, Latin American history, science fiction, and New York City; there are past issues of academic journals, comic books, Playbills, and old photos. In one corner is his sprawling collection of jazz, rock, folk, and pop records, including music by Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Phil Ochs. “To the extent that anyone’s possessions or what they curated is a reflection of their mind, there was great beauty inside that skull,” Burgess’s friend Sandy Jimenez, told me.
In the spirit of Recirculation — which is what volunteers have taken to calling the space — most of Burgess’s collection is for sale on a pay-what-you-can basis. Liu is trying to arrange for the pop-up’s proceeds to go to Word Up and is negotiating with the organization’s board of directors to take on the project. (A couple of the collection’s sections will stay together: A community center in Standing Rock, South Dakota, has agreed to take the books on Native American culture, the New Jersey radio station WFMU is set to take some LPs, and the ARChive of Contemporary Music in Dutchess County has already done so.)
Jerise Fogel, a Word Up volunteer, said she was struck by the generosity of the community caring for Burgess’s things: “Here is a whole particular, unique way of making sense of the world, a contribution to humanity that it would never have been able to appreciate or take in if Tom’s Word Up friends hadn’t committed to this backbreaking and tedious painstaking labor. And not everyone is so lucky, so supported. Without loving friends to understand and cherish you, your pathway can easily become nonexistent when you cease.”