Cliff Graubert, like Frank Walsh, was one of the founding members of GABA. In the 1970’s his Old New York Bookshop was well-known both for books and as a meeting place for many Atlanta writers. Cliff’s profile is in the form of an interview. The first question was: When, why, how did you start the Old New York Bookshop? Why that name? Cliff responded,
When I decided that I wanted to be a bookseller, I was in New York, planning to begin in Atlanta in one year. I bought books at estate sales all over New York and purchased one library. I, with the help of Sol Felperin, who was my mentor, helped sell the contents of a niche publishing company called The Free Thought Press Association which published books on atheism. The founder Joseph Lewis died, and Sol found out about it from his wife who worked for the law firm that represented the estate. If we could get rid of the inventory of 30 to 50 thousand new books, we could keep Lewis’ personal library of about 1000 books. We did, and we received.
I drove down to Atlanta with about 3500 books and opened the Old New York Book Shop. I called it that because I thought of Book Row in downtown New York on 4th Avenue which had twenty-two bookstores in a five block span. That was in 1971.
Were you involved in bookselling before Old New York? In what way?
Most people who enter this business come by it naturally as an extension of their love for books which they have collected, realizing at some point that they may make a living selling them. I came to bookselling in an unconventional way.
I grew up in New York. In 1964 I went into the Army and wound up stationed at Fort Gordon. That was my introduction to Georgia. I decided to finish college at Georgia State. After graduation, I worked with my dad in New York as a furrier on 7th Avenue. It was there that I learned how to run a business. Realizing that the fur business was slowly dying, I decided to try something else. I was in the fur business with my dad but saw that the future was not in the cards for a young man. The business was shrinking and I was the youngest man at 29. Today the fur business is gone except for a few glamorous retailers.
I opened my store on Piedmont Road just south of Piedmont Park in 1971. My landlord was Mr. Dobbins of Dobbins Heating and Air Conditioning. He was a character and very good to me. I signed a three year lease. Later on I purchased the building on Juniper Street.
How did Old New York Bookshop become known as a meeting place for Southern writers?
There was never a meeting at the store until Pat Conroy walked into the shop in April of 1973 — the old store on Piedmont road. He saw the old bookcase I rolled outside with 10 and 25 cent books. We talked baseball mostly. Pat had just returned from interviewing Clint Courtney, manager of the Savannah Braves. He made me laugh, and I him. The second time he came in, he invited me to a party at his house. It was November of the next year when Pat had the idea for me to have a celebration of a new book. Pat and I met Verne Smith at the Mansion on Piedmont and Ponce de Leon over drinks and arranged the first autographing for Smith’s The Jones Men.
Do you have a favorite writer or writers?
Some of my favorite books are The Revenge of the Tiger by Claude Balls, The Russian Milkman by I. Pullatitsky, Behind the Bush by Izzy Naked, and, of course, The Yellow Stream by I. P Daily.
What other basic biographical information should we know?
I married Cynthia Stevens in 1988, and we have two children — Norman, 21, is a senior at NYU and Rachel,18, will be going to the Boston Conservatory this September. Cynthia writes cookbooks Just out — Southern Biscuits, with Nathalie Dupree.
How has the Internet affected bookselling?
The internet has changed the rare book business greatly. In the past we never knew what was available nor where it was, and many books that were thought to be scarce or rare really were not. For instance, if you look on line today, you can find seventy first editions of The Grapes of Wrath, in a dust jacket, from $475-$59,000. Books once thought to be scarce are selling for as little as one cent on Amazon.com. As dealers we have had to learn to adjust to a fast-changing world and market. We have to be more careful now about what we buy because it is clear that many books will simply never sell.
How do you view the future of bookselling? Will Kindle, Nook and other such platforms replace the book? If the basic way of selling new books changes, what will be the effect on antiquarian booksellers?
I see the future of bookselling as fast-paced and ever-changing. Attitude is important. It doesn’t help to complain about what was. I think the business in general will shrink as the Kindle grows. Used book selling will morph into rare book selling. I think there will always be a market for rare books. I like to look at what the more successful dealers are doing.
A persistent rumor says that you grow championship pumpkins and exhibit them at county fairs in South Georgia. Is this true?
This statement is completely false. I exhibit in North Georgia.
Besides your work with pumpkins, what are your plans for the future?
My plans? I have two kids in college. No plans to change what I’m doing. After that. No plans to change either. Play golf? Don’t think so.