TWELVE YEARS ago when Pat Conroy moved to town, Atlanta's literary reputation was based solely on Margaret Mitchell and Gone With the Wind. There were a few writers quietly working and publishing with some success, but the city was hardly known as a writer's haven.

In fact, the publication of a book by a local author was a major literary event in those days, accompanied by a series of book signings and a number of small dinner parties. These were few and far between, however. At that time most of the well-known writers could be counted on both hands with a couple of fingers left over. The most prominent ones were Marshall Frady, author of biographies of George Wallace and Billy Graham; Paul Hemphill, author of The Nashville Sound and Long Gone; Paul Darcy Boles, short story writer and author of The Mississippi Run; and Anne Rivers Siddons, author of Heartbreak Hotel.

Disheartened by the lack of social contact in the writing community, Conroy collaborated with transplanted New Yorker Cliff Graubart to host a champagne autograph party at Graubart's Old New York Book Store. The guest of honor was to be Vern Smith, a Newsweek reporter who had just written a novel called The Jones Men.

"I just wanted to meet somebody else in the business," Conroy said. "And I thought it would be a nice gesture for writers to support other writers." A makeshift guest list was compiled and invitations sent out. To Conroy's surprise, about 150 people showed up, many of them struggling writers who had been toiling away in solitude, and Atlanta's most famous literary gatherings were launched.

The bookstore, a rambling old two-story house with a wide front porch, quickly became a hangout for writers -- sort of a Shakespeare and Company. In return for the privilege of rubbing elbows with the next Hemingways and Faulkners, Graubart provided a quiet place to work, a refuge for writers in the midst of marital turmoil, and an unlimited supply of coffee. His parties were a big hit socially, but Graubart almost always lost money as the guests mingled and drank champagne instead of buying books.

At first there were perhaps four or five parties a year but, as more writers moved in, and more books were written and published, Graubart sometimes found himself responsible for as many as three parties a month. During the next 12 years guests of honor at the Old New York Book Store included Howell Raines (My Soul Is Rested), March Childress (A World Made of Fire), Olive Ann Burns (Cold Sassy Tree), Terry Kay (After Eli), Bill Diehl (Sharkey's Machine), Ferrol Sams (Run With the Horsemen), Stuart Woods (Chiefs) and dozens more.

As the writing community grew, the parties became almost unmanageable. There were simply too many writers, too many books coming out to maintain the level of intensity of the early parties. There were other reasons as well. The Old New York Book Store now had more competition. Not only were there B. Dalton and Waldenbooks stores in every shopping center, but more than 25 independent bookstores had sprung up in the city. These stores wanted to host autograph parties, too, and while none of them ever matched the parties at Graubart's, they did tend to dilute attendance.

Graubart finally decided to end the parties with one big blow-out for Conroy to celebrate the publication of The Prince of Tides. Approximately 200 writers, groupies, editors and local celebrities showed up to drink the last of the free champagne.

"I'm burned out," Graubart said at the time. "I need to update the mailing list, change a few things, and I just don't have the time. Besides, I'd rather go out when the parties are still fun rather than have them just die. Let someone else carry the ball now. I want to get out while I'm enjoying it."

THE PUBLISHING business has grown as fast as the writing community. Peachtree Publishers, established as a small family business in 1977, is now one of the largest publishers in the Southeast. It built its reputation on books by syndicated humor columnist Lewis Grizzard and novels by local physician Ferrol Sams. The high water mark came when Grizzard's book, Elvis Is Dead and I Don't Feel So Good Myself, climbed onto national lists and the humorist was invited to appear on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. Grizzard left Peachtree for Villard Books, but prestige was more of an issue than money. Both houses offered him in the vicinity of $1 million for a three-book deal.

Since Grizzard's departure two years ago, Peachtree has rebounded by publishing popular psychology books such as The Marriage Map by Maxine Rock and The Imposter Phenomenon by Pauline Rose Clance, both Atlanta writers. In addition, they have been successful with new fiction by southern writers. The El Cholo Feeling Passes by New Orleans writer Frederick Barton did respectably for a first novel, as did The Calling by Florida writer Sterling Watson. Ferrol Sams' novels about life in the '30s and '40s, Run With the Horsemen and Whisper of the River, each sold more than 50,000 hardback copies. Paperback rights were sold to Viking/Penguin. And the science fiction stories of Michael Bishop, Close Encounters With the Deity, received critical acclaim.

A surprise best-seller for Peachtree last fall was a book by Grizzard's third ex-wife, Kathy Grizzard Schmook. How to Tame a Wild Bore, a tongue-in-cheek description of life with Grizzard, sold more than 40,000 copies and landed Schmook on several talk shows.

This spring Peachtree published Georgia author Erskine Caldwell's autobiography, With All My Might, poet David Bottoms' first novel, Any Cold Jordan, and After the Storm, a novel by Alabama writer Judith Richards. Autobiographies by former U.S. senator Herman Talmadge and burlesque stripper Tempest Storm are scheduled for fall. Other Atlanta publishers, such as Cherokee and Humanics, have focused more on the regional and business markets.

Writers in Atlanta continue to be prolific. Chiefs author Stuart Woods has finished Under the Lake, a southern mystery for Simon & Schuster. Olive Ann Burns is at work on a sequel to her best-selling novel, Cold Sassy Tree for Ticknor & Fields. Flannery O'Connor Award-winner Mary Hood is writing a novel following the success of her book of short stories for Ticknor & Fields, And Venus Is Blue. Grizzard is doing another book for Villard (his first, My Daddy Was a Pistol and I'm a Son of a Gun, made a brief appearance on national best-seller lists). Anne Rivers Siddons has completed a novel for Harper & Row titled Homeplace, which is scheduled for publication this month. Emily Ellison, author of First Light (Morrow), is at work on her third novel. Terry Kay is finishing a screenplay based on his novel, After Eli, for a Taylor (An Officer and a Gentlemen) Hackford film. And part-time residents Rosalynn and Jimmy Carter are currently on tour for their Random House book, Everything to Gain: Making the Most of the Rest of Your Life.

Meanwhile, there has been no effort to reinstitute the champagne autograph parties at The Old New York Book Store or anywhere else. "A lot of people miss the parties," said Conroy, who is moving back to Atlanta from Rome (Italy, not Georgia), "but I haven't run into anybody who misses the champagne. It's hard to find champagne this cheap anywhere in the world. Cliff {Graubart} got his from Pakistan and Bangladesh. It's the only champagne I've seen where whole grapes float up to the surface." :: Don O'Briant is book editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.