A Literary Tour de France

          From a publisher’s perspective, Dijon seemed to offer a happy balance of trade: kegs of wine, out; bales of books, in.  That view, of course, did not do justice to a complex economy, which involved wheat, textiles, iron, and mirrors as well as wine.  Dijon’s function as a provincial capital also made it a hub of the book trade, for it possessed a mix of institutions that were most likely to attract customers to bookshops: a parlement, tax and fiscal courts (a Cour des aides and a Chambre des comptes), an intendancy, a university with a large faculty of law, and an academy.  The number of booksellers increased from 7 in 1764 to 10 in 1777 and 12 in 1781.  They sold an unusually large number of subscriptions to the Encyclopédie (152, nearly twice as many as were sold in Grenoble, which had a population of the same size).  The province as a whole had a relatively high rate of literacy: 54 percent of adult males. Readers subscribed to the local affiches (advertising news-sheet) and joined the cabinet littéraire (private library).  All the signs suggested that Dijon had great potential as a market for the STN.

Spoiler: Highlight to view

When Favarger arrived in November, 1778, the city certainly looked impressive.  He entered it through one of the four great gates in its massive, oval wall.  The polychrome tiles on the roofs probably struck his eye as he rode or walked his horse to an inn.  He would have passed through broad streets lined with elm and linden trees to the city center, where the bookshops were located.  The grandest buildings dated from the heyday of the dukes of Burgundy in the fifteenth century, and there were many town houses in the latest, neo-classical style.  The Place royale with its statue of Louis XIV and the Château des ducs de Bourgogne, modernized in 1682 to serve as the seat for the provincial estates, proclaimed the grandeur of Dijon as the capital of a state that once had rivaled the Valois monarchy.  Yet the Dijon that shines in the memory of the modern tourist should not be confused with the Dijon of the eighteenth century.  It had only 20,000 inhabitants in 1778.  Its population had actually declined since 1750, and in contrast to its importance today, it was only 36th in size among French cities.           

Favarger did not pause over the beauty of Dijon—or at least he did not mention it in his diary and letters.  He was in a hurry to get home, having received instructions from headquarters to cut his tour short so as to arrive before winter set in.   Of the ten booksellers in the city, he considered only two, Capel and Frantin, as possible customers for the STN.  He left a catalogue with Frantin but seemed doubtful that it would lead to anything, and it did not: Frantin never sent a letter to Neuchâtel.  The STN received a few letters from three other booksellers, François Desventes, Antoine Benoit, and Jean-Baptiste Mailly; but they, too, did not develop into customers.  Jean-Baptiste Capel, who ran a printing shop as well as a bookshop on the Place Saint Jean, remained the only possibility of gaining access to a market that, on the face of it, had the capacity to absorb a great many books from Neuchâtel.

Favarger already knew Capel.  He had called on him during a business trip two years earlier and had reported that despite his position as head of the local chambre syndicale—or, rather, because of it—Capel was eager to buy forbidden books and to help the STN diffuse them:

Dijon…M. Capel est aussi un des bons.  Sa boutique est au moins bien assortie.  Il fait beaucoup en livres philosophiques; remis une note et catalogue avec prospectus.  Il verra à nous faire une demande.  Il est inspecteur de la librairie.  C’est entre ses mains qu’ont passé toutes les balles que nous avons expédiées par Jougne.  Il n’est point scrupuleux là-dessus, mais il m’a averti de faire attention lorsqu’il changera.  Peut-être celui qui le remplacera sera plus mauvais.

          Despite its promise, this opening did not lead to a great deal of business during the next two years.  The STN kept running into difficulties with its supply lines, both at the Swiss-French border and in Dijon itself, where it needed a trusty agent to expedite its shipments.  The most important commissionaire in the city, Veuve Rameau et fils, was willing to handle the STN’s bales, until it learned what they contained.  In an indignant letter of March 18, 1777, it wrote:

Pourquoi en effet introduisez-vous dans le royaume des livres prohibés ? …Nous n’en voulons plus recevoir, et si on nous en adresse, nous serons les premiers à en requérir la confiscation,…ne voulant point nous imiscer à faire aucune opération contre les ordres du souverain….Il est bien étonnant qu’en violant les lois de l’Etat vous prétendiez nous rendre personellement garantis de l’événement.

The STN rarely received such forthright assertions of loyalty to the regime, except in the case of “lettres ostensibles,” which were designed to be intercepted in the mail by the police.  Veuve Rameau’s testimony apparently was sincere, and it stands as a warning against the assumption that it was easy for foreign publishers to find accomplices among the middlemen of the transport system.  Shipping agents received and forwarded all sorts of merchandise.  They rarely knew much about books and could not be expected to know how to distinguish pirated and prohibited books from the legal variety.  If they were to cooperate in smuggling operations, they needed special instructions, and then they usually collected more than their normal commission of two percent of the shipping costs.      

          When Favarger tried again to arrange for shipping to Dijon in 1778, he steered clear of Veuve Rameau et fils and went to Jacques Nubla et fils, commissionnaires who also did a small business manufacturing candles.  Nubla agreed to receive the STN’s shipments and to get the accompanying acquit à caution or customs permit discharged—a crucial maneuver in operations designed to avoid the confiscation of illegal works.  When a shipment reached the French border, a customs officer at the bureau d’entrée had the bale sealed and attached an acquit à caution to it.  The bale then had to be delivered to a city designated as a ville d’entrée for inspection in its chambre syndicale.  Once inspected, the shipment could be released to a shipping agent, who would forward it to the recipient, whether a local bookseller or one located in another city.  He would also send the discharged acquit à caution, duly signed by the official who had made the inspection (usually a syndic or adjoint of the chambre syndicale, sometimes an inspector of the book trade attached to the police), back to the bureau d’entrée, where the customs officer would record its arrival in a register. 

          Dijon did not function as a ville d’entrée, but the officers of its booksellers’ guild sometimes discharged acquits à caution on the sly.  Their chambre syndicale was a sloppy affair.  They held their meetings in a miserable, third-floor room, and they did not have enough funds from local taxes to rent a storage space suitable for inspections [Archives départementales de la Côte d’Or, mss. C381-383].  Therefore, book shipments had their seals removed by local customs officials when they arrived in Dijon, and then they were sent to the market-hall (halles) along with all sorts of other merchandise.  According to the arrangement worked out with Favarger, Nubla would retrieve them from the market-hall, bring them to his own office, remove all the forbidden books, which the STN packed separately at the top of the bale, and invite Capel to perform an inspection.  Although he was a syndic, Capel was happy to accommodate the STN.  Having found nothing illegal, he would discharge the acquit à caution so that Nubla could send it back to the customs officers at the Swiss border.  Although the weight of the shipment was entered on the acquit, Capel neglected to verify it.  If the shipment were intended for him, he would take it back to his shop.  Otherwise, Nubla would forward it to another customer of the STN, and it would be safe from further inspection, because it would travel as a domestic shipment.  The system worked well for the publisher-wholesalers in Lausanne and Geneva, Favarger learned.  When he left town, everything seemed prepared to facilitate a bountiful trade between Neuchâtel and Dijon.

Things did not work out that way.  In December, 1778, Nubla confirmed that he would play his part, but he warned the STN that he would not assume responsibility for any mishaps and that the risks now looked serious, because new syndics had replaced Capel, and they had announced that they would be very rigorous in making inspections.  A year and a half later, Nubla gave up his business as a shipping agent in order to devote himself entirely to making candles.  His retirement left the STN without anyone to shepherd its shipments inside Dijon’s imposing city walls [Nubla et fils to STN, December 29, 1778; January 13, 1780; and May 2, 1780].

Meanwhile, the trade between the STN and Capel had faltered.  It had looked promising in February 1777.  En route to Paris on a business trip, Ostervald called on Capel during a stopover of the coach that he had taken from Besançon.  He probably made a persuasive case for the STN’s excellence as a supplier, because a few days later Capel sent an order from the catalogue that Ostervald had left with him.  The order contained 36 titles from a wide variety of genres: travel literature, history, books for children, novels, and a few classics from the seventeenth century (Molière and La Fontaine).  He also requested Mémoires de l’abbé Terray, a political libel, which he assumed the STN could supply, even though it did not appear in the catalogue.  This was a sample first order, Capel explained, which would serve as a way for him to assess the quality of the paper and printing of the works in the STN’s stock.  He hoped it would lead to mutually advantageous relations. 

Writing as a fellow printer in June, he recruited some workers who were willing to take employment in the STN’s shop.  In September, he sent another order, although the first one had been delayed, owing to difficulties at the border crossing.  In reply, the STN sounded him on his willingness to act as an “assureur” or smuggler, who would expedite shipments through his chambre syndicale.  He refused, not on principle but because of the danger: the government had recently sent orders for the chambre to be especially strict in its inspections, he explained. The STN wanted to open up a direct route to the center and north of France, and continued to ask Capel for help, but he ignored its repeated requests, and by the end of the year he sounded irritated.      

Although always polite and well written (he seemed better educated than many of the more marginal booksellers), his letters took on a frosty tone.  None of the STN’s books had reached him, he complained on November 27, 1777.  He had received contradictory information about the shipments from the STN and its middlemen, and he was annoyed at having to pay postage (in the eighteenth century, letters traveled c.o.d.) to no effect: “…Les difficultés et les longueurs me découragent absolument….Quand on reçoit plusieurs lettres de Neuchâtel, dont les unes ne disent rien et les autres annoncent des marchandises qui n’arrivent pas, cela a tout-à-fait l’air d’une comédie, où je suis l’acteur joué et dupé.” 

Shipping arrangements were complicated by the government edicts of August 30, 1777, which reorganized the policing of the book trade in an effort to eliminate piracy.   As the STN’s stocked consisted entirely in pirated works, the prospects for extended commerce between Neuchâtel and Dijon looked bad.  But everything depended on how the edicts would be enforced.  Capel’s letters showed how slowly the machinery of the state went into motion.  Although he was the syndic of Dijon’s chambre syndicale, he had not received a copy of the edicts before December.  A quick reading of their text, which was loaned to him by a friend, made him think that the Parisian booksellers, who had protested against some aspects of the legislation, would succeed in blocking its execution.  Nonetheless, the booksellers in Dijon were supposed to send the government a report on their holdings of pirated books before the end of the year.  If stamped by officials in their chambre syndicale, those books would permitted to circulate.

At last in January, 1778, Capel received a shipment from the STN.  But when he sorted through it, he found that it did not contain the books he had ordered.  It later turned out that the bale had been intended for Chaboz, a bookseller in Dôle, and had been sent to him by mistake.  Although the STN’s shipping system was looking dysfunctional, Capel asked it to send him a half dozen copies of Eloge historique de Michel de L’Hôpital, chancelier de France.  He was also eager to buy subscriptions to Diderot’s Encyclopédie, which the STN was producing as part of a consortium led by Joseph Duplain, a bookseller in Lyon.  At last, in February, the main shipment for Capel arrived.  He responded with a letter expressing hope that their commerce would continue thereafter on a sound footing.

In July, 1778 Capel wrote that the edicts of August 30, 1777 still had not gone into effect in Dijon.  He expected to be replaced by new syndics, as required by the edicts, and he could not say how the STN’s shipments would be treated in the future.  He would do what he could to help, but, he warned, “Je n’aime pas à me compromettre.”  That was how things stood when Favarger arrived four months later.  Thanks to his arrangement with Nubla, Favarger expected that trade with Dijon would pick up.  But it never did.  In December 1778, Nubla reported that the new syndics had been installed and were determined to confiscate all illegal shipments.  From then on, Capel ceased ordering books from Neuchâtel.

Because his orders never resulted in large-scale shipments, the statistics drawn from them provide only a glimpse of the trade in Dijon around 1777.  Capel certainly sensed a demand for pedagogical works.  He ordered a dozen copies of Pierre Restaut’s Abrégé des principes de la grammaire française and Nicolas-Antoine Viard’s Les Vrais principes de la lecture, de l’orthographe et de la prononciation française, along with a half dozen L’Arithmétique ou le livre facile pour apprendre l’arithmétique de soi-même et sans maître.  He also requested an anonymous anthology, Lectures pour les enfants, ou choix de petits contes également propres à les amuser et à leur faire aimer la vertu, and the popular Magasin des enfants, ou Dialogues d’une sage gouvernante avec ses élèves de la première distinction by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.  Among political works, he ordered the radical libel, Mémoires de l’abbé Terray, and the theoretical tract by the abbé Mably, De la législation ou principes des lois.  One can imagine Dijon’s lawyers and parlementary officials thumbing through those works in Capel’s book store, although he never identified any of his customers.  He ordered the controversial pamphlet by Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet, Lettre de M. Linguet à M. le comte de Vergennes; but he later regretted it, because it did not arrive in time: “C’est un ouvrage qui a passé tout à fait et que je donnerais à moins de dix sous. »  The other books that Capel requested came from a wide variety of genres.  They were typical of what provincial dealers generally ordered, and they were not peculiar to what the STN supplied, because Capel noted that he received the same books from other houses, including some in Lyon and Paris.  His dossier confirms impressions garnered from those of other booksellers: there was plenty of demand for all sorts of literature in the French provinces, but much of it remained unsatisfied, owing to difficulties in getting the books to the booksellers.  The publisher-wholesalers from Geneva and Lausanne may have succeeded better than the STN, but its relations with Dijon amounted to little more than a story of missed opportunities.