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Get Lost Travel Books
Travelers Find Their Way To Get Lost
by Helene Goupil on Nov 25, 2005
The rocket sign hanging from the front of Get Lost Travel Books, an Upper Market bookstore, marks a major hub of travel literature in the city. Walk in and you'll probably find Lee Azus, the owner, chatting with a customer about a newly released book.
He might as well have been in the business all of his life. He knows his travel books and authors, has visited most of the destinations he reads about, and is always willing to share his opinion, whether good or bad. This travel knowledge comes from reading hundreds of books and from his thirteen years of working as a travel agent.
In the nineties, a changing travel industry helped Azus transition from travel agent to bookstore owner. "One day a customer came to the travel agency I worked in and said, 'I found this great deal on the Internet, can you book it for me?', and I thought, next year they won't even need me anymore. I need to get out of here," he remembers.
He came across an article about a travel bookstore in Texas while figuring out what to do for a living and found the business idea interesting. Not sure how to go about opening a bookstore, he did what a travel agent does best -- researching and visiting the destination in question. He made a list of independent travel bookstores he wanted to see in North America and visited each one, taking notes on what he liked and didn't like. The trip took him to a dozen stores in Montreal, Vancouver, Chicago, New York and Pasadena among other cities.
"I'd make a map in my head of exactly where everything was; I'd run out and sketch it out," he said.
A month after coming back from his trip, he called a bookstore he had visited in Seattle and asked if he could work for them for two weeks, free of charge. He reserved a room at a nearby YMCA and started his crash course in bookstore management. "Seven days a week for two weeks, that's all I did," Azus said.
Once back in San Francisco, he moved into the Market Street location, which ironically used to be a travel agency and, in September 1996, he opened Get Lost.
"The first day, we had all the books on the floors -- they were all in boxes by section. We weren't officially opened but two people walked in and bought stuff. We sold $50.39 and I thought 'Oh my god, this is so easy!'" he recalls. The years that followed were good to him -- the "new" economy that made his travel agent career obsolete allowed people to take more trips, thus helping Get Lost grow.
Like dishes at a restaurant that reveal more about the chef than could ever be said, Get Lost reflects Azus's friendliness and laid-back personality. Wacky gadgets, like the Whizzy for women, a device that lets ladies pee standing up, are displayed next to serious titles.
Upstairs, customers in need of a quick wanderlust fix can find three-day travel video rentals for $3 and every type of guidebook imaginable. Azus regularly puts on events that have become a popular meeting place for authors, travel professionals and audience.
Azus and his staff are the rare book sellers who read the books they carry and can recommend reads based on what you've liked in the past. To keep up with the large number of titles being published, Azus says he reads about six books at a time on average. If you can't find what you want, ask the helpful staff. Azus will most likely go out of his way to not only order the book but read it himself.
"A customer our first year came in and asked me if we had Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger. I said, 'Who?' I was really embarrassed because I'd never heard of him and thought I had to go get it for the store and for myself. So, we rarely sell Thesiger but we always have it now," he said.
That's what makes Get Lost such a nice place to hang out in -- a dedicated bookstore owner who makes sure each visit is a treat bound to stir up wanderlust.
by Helene Goupil on Nov 25, 2005
photos courtesy Helene Goupil