BY ALLEN RABINOWITZ / AJT//
It’s not hard to imagine Cliff Graubart as a major character in the “great Jewish-American novel” – perhaps an opus by Philip Roth, who happens to be one of the former’s favorite writers.
In this hypothetical work, Graubart would be the host of a literary salon where authors brag about their recent best-seller or complain about the difficulty of their latest work in progress. In the middle of a smoke-filled room, glass of port or sherry in hand, Graubart would act as the mediator of a literary dispute; or laugh with gusto as one of the scribes retold a humorous incident bound for a short story.
Imagining this scene is easy because, for a quarter century, Graubart served in the role of host for Atlanta’s literary community, holding gatherings dedicated to celebrating authors and literature. As the proprietor of the Old New York Book Shop in midtown, his autograph parties often brought out the crème de la crème of the city’s best writers, including Pat Conroy, Terry Kay and Anne Rivers Siddons.
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Sitting in his Dunwoody living room on a sunny and crisp late-winter afternoon, Graubart reminisces about those bygone days as if they happened last week instead of two decades ago. Surrounded by tomes of many of those author-friends, he also talks about his own recently published work of fiction: “The Curious Vision of Sammy Levitt,” a collection featuring the title novella and five short stories.
At the age of 71, he is a first-time published author. Although he had written a number of magazine articles over the years, the “Levitt” collection was a slow-growing project.
“I wrote the stories a long time ago, then put them away,” he explained. “My friend Dan Sklar in New York asked how the book was going, and I told him I had written everything I could about the Sammy Levitt story, but it was too short.
“But then, when I called it up on the computer, it was pointed out to me that it was all in single-spaced; so I actually had 100 pages instead of the 50 I thought that I had. When I realized I needed to have one more piece, I wrote ‘Short Timer,’ a military story, last year.”
Graubart’s initial idea was to write a screenplay.
“But then I thought to myself, ‘Are you stupid? Who gets a screenplay done? It’s not going to happen,’” he laughed. “If it’s great, they’ll steal it and you’ll see it on the screen under somebody else’s writing credit.”
Though he was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Graubart’s family moved to Washington Heights in northern Manhattan when he was 10. The mostly Jewish neighborhood of his 1950s boyhood serves as the background for much of “Sammy Levitt.”
In the novella, the titular character is being tutored for his bar mitzvah in the family synagogue’s new building when he spots a paint pattern on the rabbi’s new office door that, to Sammy’s eye, looks like the face of Jesus. When he seeks the advice of a local priest, an uproar ensues that continues until his calling to the Torah.
Admitting that the character of Sammy was based on himself at that age, Graubart adds:
“I thought it would be a funny idea, and then I started writing it, and it became a coming-of-age story with some funny things in it. It turned out to be a little sadder because the kid has issues: horrible in school, no friends, etc.
“Then, instead of going to a rabbi, the kid goes to a priest. What a schmuck!”
A Family Affair
Graubart proudly says that he isn’t the only published writer in the house. His wife, Cynthia, is a cookbook author who has written several tomes on Southern cuisine, including a few with noted chef Nathalie Dupree, whose television programs Cynthia produced.
Also on the topic of family, Graubart says his main inspiration to complete this collection was his children: son Norman, a textbook editor in New York, and daughter Rachel, who is studying dance at the Boston Conservancy.
“My kids kept asking me when I was going to finish the novel,” he said. “It was important for me not to leave it undone, and [then] they find a box full of papers after I’m dead of something I tried to do but couldn’t finish.
“So I did [finish it].”
Graubart credits author and long-time friend Terry Kay with an assist in getting “Sammy Levitt” published.
“Terry was essential,” he claims. “He read it and sent it to Mercer University Press. Although it’s a Baptist-oriented publishing house, the guy who runs it is a theologian who studied the Hebrews, and he said ‘I love all Jewish fiction.’”
The structure of the book is modeled after Roth’s “Goodbye, Columbus” in that it’s a novella and a series of short stories each exploring an aspect of Jewish-American life in a particular place and time. Like Roth, Graubart tackles the ever-changing cultural warfare between the different factions.
For example, in the story “Innocence Off Broadway,” a schism between two groups is explored as part of the American Jewish experience. The main character is a first-generation American at the turn of the 19th century who leaves his father’s flourishing business in San Francisco to follow his muse to New York and write for the Yiddish Theatre.
While the young playwright wants to write about the contemporary urban life that recent immigrants are experiencing, the older producers tell him that their audiences are more interested in sentimental stories about the shtetls in Eastern Europe.
The story reflects the intergenerational strife of the new-versus-old as well as the divide between affluent German Jews – represented by the producers – and their poorer relations from the East, upon whom they looked down.
The Geographic Gist
Although he’s spent more than four decades in Atlanta, the city plays no role in the story collection.
“It’s not me,” Graubart explained. “That’s for someone who grew up here to write about; it’s in their blood, while I’m just passing through. It’s hard for me to write about my childhood in Atlanta, because I didn’t have one. I can’t write about what it was like growing up as a Jew in Atlanta in the 1950s or ’60s.
“People can write about space ships or racing cars in Italy, but I don’t trust myself to do that. I don’t think I’m a great writer, but details in my work connect with people.”
He may not venture into the realm of fantasy, Graubart is committed to writing fiction.
“Fiction frees you up to say anything you want to say,” he said. “People would say ‘Why don’t you write about the store?’ But I didn’t want to write about the store; I wanted to make things up.
“It gives you freedom – you don’t have to explain what happened. This is what happened, because I just said it.”
Before moving to Atlanta in 1971, Graubart attended the University of Toledo, served in the Army and then graduated from Georgia State University. He moved back to New York for two years to work with his father in the family business as a furrier. But in the late 1960s, the fur business was dying.
Thinking that Atlanta was a city ready to boom, he came back and opened the Old New York Book Store, patterned on the used-and-rare book shops in lower Manhattan’s Fourth Avenue second hand book district.
“I had a picture of that kind of store in my head when I opened,” he said of the store’s original Piedmont Avenue location. “I had pictures of New York all over the place because I had more room than books – I really didn’t have enough (stock) to start.”
That problem didn’t last long, and his overstuffed business soon moved to the Juniper Street building.
Changing, Yet Remaining True
Of all the Southern writers he’s known, he speaks of closeness with Pat Conroy, author of such bestsellers as “The Great Santini,” “Lords of Discipline” and “The Prince of Tides.” Graubart says Conroy had a significant impact on his own work.
“Pat walked into my store in 1973, about two years before he published ‘The Great Santini,’” Graubart recalled. “I showed him some of my writing, and he said I should try to get it published, but I didn’t.”
Still, Conroy and Graubart became good friends. Today, they are partners in a publishing company that does reprints of Conroy’s books as well as those of other Southern writers who took part in the gatherings at Graubart’s store.
“Pat wrote a chapter about me in his book ‘My Reading Life,’ which was about the books in his life,” said Graubart. “The chapter is titled ‘Old New York Bookstore’ and is about autograph parties at the bookstore.
“It [my store] became the center for the literary community of Atlanta for 20 years. There were always a lot of folks – like Pat, Stuart Woods and Terry Kay – there. “
Although he sold the book shop in 1996 when the owners of Einstein’s restaurant made him “an offer [he] couldn’t refuse” on the Juniper Street property, Graubart still keeps his hand in the business through booths at rare book shows and via e-commerce. Unlike many in the book business, Graubart has adapted to changes in technology.
The publishing industry has changed greatly over the last decade, with reading devices such as the Kindle, the iPad and the Nook supplanting books as the American reading public’s primary means of experiencing literature.
“Nobody [in publishing] knows, and they’re terrified,” Graubart said of the current state of the industry. “E-books are the new paradigm. It’s not a matter of whether you like it or not, this is it. You don’t like computers, I understand, but computers are a part of our life now. I was in my late 50s when computers came in and I realized I had to get into it.
“[So] I sell my books online now. I have a few thousand books in my basement, and I sell books to Australia, I sell books to Oshkosh.
“There are people in my business who are angry and are proud of the fact they don’t have a computer – [but] not many of them. I understand it. They’re smart people, but they can be very stupid in certain situations.”
No matter what the future may hold, Graubart believes the hardcover book will endure. Though excited about the potential of e-reading machines and the capabilities they provide for educating the reader, he nonetheless has faith in the physical copy.
“It’s like when television came in; they said movies would go out. Books will perhaps become gifts – you’ll read an e-book and love it, then go out to buy the hardback.
“I truly believe there will always be hardback books.”