A Friend of Mine Has a Book Out and It’s Good

If you think you know Atlanta history, I venture to say you have lots more to learn by reading Jeff Clemmons’ fascinating book about Rich’s department store.

Rich’s: A Southern Institution makes it clear that Rich’s was far more than a store; it was a driving force that built and shaped Atlanta for almost a century and a half.

Atlanta author Jeff Clemmons

Published in 2012 by The History Press, the book has been around for a while, but it was new to me when a mutual friend recently introduced me to Jeff, who is, incidentally, at work on another book.

And while Ted and I have lived in Georgia since 1991, and in Atlanta for most of those years, it was fun to share new facts with him about our home city while I was reading Jeff’s book.

Here are a few of the tidbits we learned:

  • The Rich Foundation gave substantial financial help to Emory University in the 1940s and 50s to strengthen its business school’s competitive standing with the Ivy League. It also gave sizeable donations to Georgia Tech for a computer center and other growth initiatives.
  • WABE, Atlanta’s public radio station, began as a gift from the foundation to the Atlanta and Fulton County school systems for education purposes. The call letters stand for Atlanta Board of Education. We’ve listened to WABE almost daily for over 30 years and never knew that … until I read Jeff’s book.
  • Rich’s Great Tree at Christmas was such a popular southern tradition that it appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1961.
  • The career of well-known food writer Nathalie Dupree got a significant boost when she started Rich’s Cooking School at the downtown store in 1975 … on the advice of Julia Child.

A skillful historian

Jeff does an admirable job presenting Rich’s sprawling history in a clear, concise narrative. Frankly, I’m awed by how skillfully he writes.

He smoothly weaves together tales of the people of Rich’s, their successes and tragedies, with the complex business aspects of the story as the company expands into new markets and shrewdly earns a place in the hearts of many Atlantans and beyond.

The history of the company’s philanthropic work alone is staggering.

Over the years, Rich’s foundation gave millions of dollars to almost every major college in Atlanta, the United Negro College Fund, the YMCA, the Jewish Education Alliance and almost every single art organization operating in Atlanta. That was news to me, too.

Jeff manages it all with a historian’s knack for exploring individual strands of Rich’s story without losing the pace and energy of the overall narrative. He is a master of the transition as he delves into details about Rich’s venture into TV broadcasting in the 50s, its elaborate Fashionata shows that ran in one form or another for nearly five decades, and its fabulous coconut cakes that launched Rich’s into the booming bakery business.

There’s even the intriguing story of how Satellite Boulevard in Atlanta’s northern suburbs got its name. Yes, Rich’s had a hand in that, too.

Ultimately, a story about America

Most impressive to me is how, in telling a story that is unique to Atlanta, Jeff tells a national story, too … a story that extends beyond the local and the regional to become a poignant piece of American history.

  • It’s an immigration success story. Jewish Hungarian immigrant Morris Rich started his store as a humble dry goods supplier in 1867 in a city ruined by the Civil War.
  • A civil rights story. Jeff recounts in detail the not-so-pretty chronicle of the store’s clumsily reluctant response to integration in the 1960s.
  • A story about capitalism’s heedless ways. Rich’s story is a melancholy one that is mirrored in so many American cities today with the acquisition and homogenization of unique local businesses by national conglomerates. In Rich’s case, it’s Federated Department Stores’ burial of the Rich’s brand for Macy’s in 2004.

It’s also a story of the changing American consumer … and the end of an era.

As Jeff writes, ” … department stores were no longer the service-oriented, Disney-esque temples of retailing that they had once been … People were now more loyal to their money and how far it would stretch instead of the hallowed name of the institution in which it was being spent.”

I was sorry to see the Rich’s story come to an end.

Especially for this child of the 1950s whose fondest boyhood memories include visits to some of those “Disney-esque temples,” it’s sad to think the days of the grand local department stores are gone. With Jeff’s powerful, matter-of-fact closing sentence, the conclusion of his book is quite impactful. It’s a testament to his talent as a writer that a story about a department store can be so moving.

And so educational.

I highly recommend the book as required reading for anyone calling himself or herself an Atlantan. If I may be so bold, I’ll suggest that you’re “not quite there yet” unless you’ve read this book.

Another book in the works

The good news is that Jeff is writing a third book. This one sounds fascinating, too: a biography of the critic, satirist and avant-garde novelist Frances Newman. A contemporary of Margaret Mitchell, Newman was highly educated, fluent in four languages and determined to rebel against traditional expectations of southern women at the dawn of the 20th century.

Frances Newman, author of The Hard-Boiled Virgin

Her novel The Hard-Boiled Virgin about female independence was an instant bestseller the same month as Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. It was, notoriously, banned in Boston, but readers clamored for it. The book went through eight printings in six months.

Friends with Sherwood Anderson and a protege of H.L. Mencken, Newman was indeed no slouch. She died at age 45 and was buried in her family’s plot in Atlanta’s Westview Cemetery. Sadly, her work is largely forgotten today.

“I got interested in Frances because I talked about her on my Westview tours,” says Jeff. “I read her novels and was blown away.” You can read the piece he wrote about her for Westview Cemetery’s Facebook page here.

After writing the piece, Jeff was hooked and asked, “Why not do a book on her?” And so he is. His goal is to introduce Newman to contemporary readers and celebrate a brilliant writer “gone too soon.”

For this reader, it’s something else to look forward to from the pen of Jeff Clemmons.

Note: Jeff’s other work includes a 2018 history of Westview Cemetery, the largest civilian cemetery in the Southeast. Thanks to Jeff for providing photos I’ve used in this blog. Other photos are from the front and back covers of his books.

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