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Garrett Lai, TGA Communications Editor, dies at 54

Garret Lai at The 2020 Travel Goods Show
Garrett Lai writing a final script for the TGA Best of Awards Ceremony. (The 2020 Travel Goods Show, New Orleans, LA)

Longtime TGA Communications Editor Garrett Lai died unexpectedly September 29, 2020 due to a heart attack. He collapsed in his garage after riding his bike on rollers. An elegant, esoteric, difficult-to-master type of bicycle trainer, rollers require a cyclist to balance on three spinning cylinders, like a log-running lumberjack. The equipment choice feels quintessentially Lai.

Known as the voice of TGA because of his PA announcements during The Travel Goods Show, Lai shaped the editorial style of TGA and Travel Goods Showcase. “Garrett started working for TGA 16 years ago as a copywriter, but quickly became so much more,” said Michele Marini Pittenger, president of TGA. “Within no time, his distinctive voice could be heard in almost all of our publications and promotions. Garrett became part of our TGA family both as a consummate professional and as a dear friend. Truly one-of-a-kind, there is no one like Garrett. He is irreplaceable in our lives and hearts and his death is a tremendous loss for us all.”

Association members and friends remember Lai’s kindness, his humor (which ranged from dry to pitch black), his strong opinions, and his deep engagement with every subject that crossed his path. Lai began college as a mechanical engineering major but finished with an English degree. Having built cars since he was 12, Lai’s first job after college was staff writer for Road & Track magazine. Before joining TGA and Travel Goods Showcase, Lai also wrote for Outside, Men’s Health, Bicycling and others. He provided marketing communications and strategy for name brands like Burton, MillerCoors, Victoria’s Secret, Williams-Sonoma, Acura, Honda, Nissan and Toyota.

Lai’s distinctive retro look included silver skull jewelry, a neat pompadour, and narrow vintage suits that fit perfectly despite his chronological middle age and addiction to homemade cookies. Heidi Burgess, Lai’s partner of 22 years, fondly remembers their shared enthusiasm for Lindy Hop and 1940s style, a passion for politics and social justice, and their devotion to their two tabby cats, Atticus and Scout (named after characters in “To Kill a Mockingbird”). Scout, whose name also references Burgess’ childhood as a Girl Scout, turned one last weekend. Lai had purchased a Girl Scout-green plaid collar and tag to commemorate the occasion; Burgess had to buckle on Scout’s new birthday collar, alone.

Lai loved science fiction, attending Comic-Con yearly with his sister Sharon Lai. He was an accomplished marksman, although not a shooting prodigy on the order of Sharon. A lifelong car fanatic, one of Lai’s prized possessions was a vintage Porsche 911, and one of his greatest sources of pride was his role as ghost writer for Carroll Shelby’s syndicated newspaper column and PR communications.

Passionate about WWII-era aviation, Lai’s most important friendship was with Violet Thurn Cowden, a legendary Women Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) who loved flying P-51 Mustangs. Thurn Cowden and her family informally adopted Lai, a relationship that was as profound as it was not legally binding.

A true Renaissance man, Lai was known for his enthusiasms, many of which turned into side jobs. Flying vintage airplanes led to part-time jobs managing two different flight schools. Lai’s much-appreciated skill as a gourmet home chef morphed into teaching cooking classes. And over the last several years Lai’s hobby business, Time Travel Typewriters, developed a serious sideline in celebrity typewriter repairs. In the spirit of Lai’s habitual discretion, the people he repaired typewriters for and the literary and Hollywood provenance of those typewriters will not be reported publicly. But we can assure you the stories are juicy.

Garrett's travel typewriter
Garrett Lai rode the rails to The 2020 Travel Goods Show, accompanied by his elegant Olivetti Lettera travel typewriter. (Amtrak Sunset Limited, somewhere between El Paso and San Antonio)

Lai was appreciated by the larger typewriter community for organizing the Love Letters Craft Festival before Valentine’s Day each year, providing typewriters for events at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books and the International Printing Museum, and giving typewriter advice weekly on Instagram Live, all in partnership with Aaron Therol of Typewriter Connection. Together, the duo was known as The Typewriter Guys. During the pandemic Lai and Therol typed stacks of personalized letters, mailed free to anyone who requested them, as part of The Typewriter Guys #covid19correspondence campaign to combat social isolation. And Lai repaired, sourced, and sold typewriters for everyone within shipping distance, bringing hundreds of typewriters back to life.

One dream cut short was Lai’s burgeoning career as a fiction writer. In 2019, inspired by the new periodical Cold Hard Type (published by The Typewriter Revolution), Lai submitted several short stories. Two have been published, and Cold Hard Type just announced that they will run two more of Lai’s stories posthumously.

Besides partner Heidi Burgess and their kitties Atticus and Scout, Garrett Lai is survived by his beloved sisters Jennifer LaDuke and Sharon Lai, mother Theresa Lai, and their families. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to The International Printing Museum. The Typewriter Guys had a collaborative relationship with the museum, and Lai was impressed by the museum’s work engaging children in literature, writing and technology. Contributions will help support Scouting-related events, like The Book Arts Patch Day for Girls and the BSA Merit Badge Day, designed to fulfill both the Graphic Arts merit badge and the Pulp and Paper merit badge.

Learn more about Lai’s love of typewriters at the Time Travel Typewriters Instagram Page and website. Explore his passion for all things mechanical at the Velox Machina Instagram Page.

Lai’s published short stories can be found in “Escapements: Typewritten Tales from Post-Digital Worlds,” and “Backspaces: Typewritten Tales of Time Travel” under the pen name N. E. Glenn. A previously unpublished story, “The Pool” was just posted by Loose Dog Press.

Read tributes from Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, The Cycling Independent, and The Typewriter Revolution.

Understand how heart conditions can afflict endurance athletes.

Have a memory, photo, or tribute to Lai that you’d like to share? Email Sara Ecclesine, sara@travel-goods.org. We’ll add it to the page below.

The Industry Remembers Garrett Lai

We loved Garrett so much.  I spoke to him on the phone just a month ago and he was doing so well.  All of us at Matador HQ are truly devastated to hear about this. 

Garrett was always so interested in the meticulous detail of seemingly mundane things.  He was always the only person at TGA that wanted to hear about the chemistry of the fabric coatings or the engineering challenges behind making a snap cap for a toiletry bottle.  It’s so rare that you come across someone who engages so deeply and passionately with everyone and everything they meet.  Each time I spoke to Garrett I walked away with a little extra energy and appreciation for the small things in life.  He was so memorable in that way and won’t soon be forgotten.

– Chris Clearman, Founder, Matador

Garrett was always a member of our “Tag Team” and we always enjoyed each other so much!

Reading about Garrett a few minutes ago, it was like a lightning bolt hit me. Our relationship with Garrett started years ago when we first introduced our product line at TGA, after also being a retailer in this industry for decades.  As we are in Southern CA, Garrett would either call me or drop into our shop a couple times a year – and it was always like having a family member show up. We couldn’t figure out how we were related, but if you know Garrett he would say it’s because I’m Jewish and loved Chinese food – so we have to be related.  From the moment I met Garrett we had multiple common passions – bicycling, travel goods, the outdoor industry, and the great outdoors. He never forgave me (up to the last time we saw each other in New Orleans) for picking up the check the last time we did dinner in Palm Springs. That dinner was a “quick one” and lasted about 3 ½ hours, as when we sat down to talk we had so many cross-over passions that our conversations became two rivers that merged. When Garrett needed some “buzz” from a retailer he would call me, and our calls were always infectious. 

As creative as he was intense, Garrett and I would verbally develop products in conversation for hours.  Seeing each other at TGA Shows was always a reunion of two brothers from different backgrounds, and he melded into our booth as one of us (some folks that had seen him around couldn’t quite figure that out). 

A huge part of me is missing today and will be forever.  Garrett – you will always live in our hearts as one of the “BagBoys” at It’s…In The Bag! as well as our “Tag” team brother.  We are all blessed to have had you as long as we did.

– Chuck Weisbart, Owner, It’s…In The Bag!

Garrett interviewed me lots of times for the TGA. He asked great questions and was very patient when I stumbled over the answers. His editing meant the finished video made it look like I knew what I was talking about! Genius!

I will remember him as a thoroughly decent human being. I hope others feel the same. God bless.

David Lomas, Managing Director, Design Go

My heart is crushed with the news of Garrett passing. I could barely breathe yesterday when I read about it.  A brilliant man, he was always the brightest light at The Show. Garrett was a huge WALTER + RAY fan from our very first booth. He was so uplifting and hysterical, so interesting and interested, and just so ridiculously smart. Garrett, and his show bestie Sara, would come by our space a few times a Show to check in with us, play with our new designs and share quirky, lively banter. It would make our day. Our sincerest love and condolences to Garrett’s partner, family and all of you at TGA from my brother Ron and I, my family and all of my team. I am so blessed to have known him and will carry his sparkling light in my heart forever.

Tania Rodrigues, Founder, WALTER + RAY

3 Responses

  1. Heartbroken to hear of Garrett’s passing last week. He was such an interesting guy and I really enjoyed getting to know him over the years. That was a lovely tribute. My deepest sympathies to his family and friends.

  2. We anticipated seeing good friends every time the Travel Goods Show rolled around, but no one more so than Garrett. We always looked forward to our first sighting of him on the show floor and then to wonderful conversations with him over the course of the event. Many years ago Garrett made a point of getting to know us and from then on he sought us out at every show. During the show in New Orleans he said we absolutely could not miss the WW II Museum and we didn’t. But we would have missed it had it not been for Garrett! In a subsequent phone call he told us that after the show he spent an entire day there, reading all the descriptions of the displays. Typical Garrett!
    We continue to be grateful for his friendship over the years. We will miss him!

  3. So sorry to hear about Garrett’s passing. What an amazing life and dedication to helping others. Our deepest sympathy from all of us at Ricardo Beverly Hills and The Skyway Luggage Co. to his family and loved ones.

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