Besançon was good book territory: a high rate of literacy, a parlement and other law courts, numerous administrative offices, active cultural and educational institutions, and a dozen bookshops. The Almanach de la librairie of 1781 listed 12 booksellers and 4 bookseller-printers, a large number for a city of 25,000 inhabitants.
When seen up close, however, the picture is more complex, and there is no better place to examine it than the correspondence of Charles-Antoine Charmet l’aîné and his wife, who worked actively with him and took over the business after his death in January 1783. They kept up a steady stream of letters to the STN from 1769 to 1788—179 in all, so rich in detail that they may be the most important single source of information about a provincial bookseller in eighteenth-century France.
Charmet l’aîné first appears in the archives in July 1769 as part of a family operation, “Charmet frères et soeurs,” which supplied the STN’s new printing shop with paper and other materials. The “brothers and sisters” also ran a small book business, and by the end of 1771 they began to order books from the STN, starting with Mercier’s popular utopian fantasy, L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante. Charles-Antoine may have thought that the business did not have much of a future, because in 1772 he asked the STN if would take him on as one of its clerks. But by October, 1773 he was running his own book shop in the center of the city: “rue St. Pierre, près la Place.” The letters refer to other suppliers, especially in Lausanne and Geneva, but Charmet favored the STN, which was only 20 leagues (60 kilometers) away. They often mention trips that he took to negotiate purchases in person with the STN’s directors and to arrange supply lines, including smuggling operations at the border near Pontarlier. The visits led to something approaching friendship, as one can tell from the tone of the letters. Although they kept to the flat and business-like style that prevailed in commercial correspondence, they became increasingly cordial, and they contained a growing number of personal observations about books and the book trade. On March 7, 1777 Charmet wrote to two of the STN’s directors, Frédéric-Samuel Ostervald and Abram Bosset, who at that time were on a business trip in Paris, simply to assure them that all was well back in Neuchâtel. He had just visited the STN’s office, and their wives, who were in good health, had received him with “grandes marques d’affection, de politesse, et de bonté.”
The ties of friendship reinforced the commitment of “confiance,” a key term in commercial relations, which indicated both trust and the willingness to extend credit, though sometimes up to a limited amount. In several letters, Charmet and his wife said they always gave the preference to the STN in ordering books, no matter who published them. In fact, they said they wished they could draw all their supplies from the STN, despite the need to deal with other publishers as occasions arose. Their orders therefore give an unusually rich view of a provincial bookseller’s business, and their letters show not only what they ordered but how they ordered—that is, their strategy and outlook on the market.
Caution was the guiding principle of Charmet’s commerce. He tried to read new books before ordering them so that he could calculate what would appeal to his customers. Whenever possible, he arranged for purchases among his own clients before purchasing them from the STN, and he rarely ordered large numbers of a particular book. “Je suis faible et tremble en conséquence,” he explained to the STN on June 20, 1777. “Le débit est ma boussole, et je ne puis m’en écarter sans danger. C’est pourquoi je ne veux rien hazarder.” He described himself as a “petit débitant,” not an important dealer, although when the French government created a chambre syndicale or guild office in 1778, he was chosen as its top official (syndic). He avoided risks, calculated demand conservatively, and never ordered more copies than he thought he could sell. According to Mme Charmet, his strategy in ordering was “prendre beaucoup d’articles et en petit nombre. »
The statistics linked to this web page bear out that remark. Although he sometimes ordered a baker’s dozen of a particular work in order to get the free thirteenth copy, Charmet usually ordered a half dozen or fewer copies and then came back for more if he found that it sold well. In the case of L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante, for example, he ordered 6 copies in December 1771, 6 in May 1781, and 6 in September 1783. An example of sustained demand for the kind of book that sold well in the eighteenth century but is forgotten today can be seen in the pattern of his orders for Mme de Genlis’s Théâtre à l’usage des jeunes personnes:
December 23, 1779……………………………...12 copies
February 18, 1780……………………………….13 copies
May 5, 1780……………………………………..26 copies
March 19, 1781………………………………….10 copies
May 18, 1781…………………………………….13 copies
August 28, 1782………………………………..…2 copies
June 1, 1785……………………………………...32 copies
April 24, 1787……………………………………..2 copies
Only on rare occasions when he sensed great demand for a work did Charmet risk a large initial order—and the repetition of the orders usually showed that he had calculated correctly. Thus his orders for a new work, which promised to be a best-seller, in 1781, Necker’s Mémoire donné au roi par M. N. en 1778 sur l’administration provinciale :
May 30, 1781……………………………………..100 copies
June 29, 1781………………………………………50 copies
June 15, 1783……………………………………….1 copy
March 9, 1783……………………………………....4 copies
June 1, 1785………………………………………..12 copies
While ordering few copies for each book, Charmet included enough different books in each order to make a sizable shipment, thereby saving on the transport costs, which were cheaper for large “balles” than for small “ballots.” Thus a typical order quoted as it appears in his letter of May 29, 1775 (details about the titles and authors can be found in the general list of books ordered on this website):
Articles que je vous prie de m’expédier :
25 Esprit de Clément XIV in-12
6 Don Pedre, tragédie de Voltaire
12 Eloge de la raison par le même
6 Enfants élevés suivant l’ordre de la nature
6 Collection des œuvres de Crébillon 8o 7 vol.
12 Théisme. Essai philosophique 8o 2 vol.
3 Voyage à l’île de Malte
3 Maximes de la Rochefoucauld
2 Etat du Portugal in-12
2 Eléments d’histoire générale de Millot 8o 9 vol.
6 Henri IV, drame
6 Histoire de Wills ou triomphe de la bienfaisance 8o 2 vol.
6 Histoire philosophique des Européens dans les Indes 8o 7 vol. Hollande figures
2 Molière 8o 6 vol.
2 Œuvres de Montesquieu in-12 6 vol.
6 Onanisme de Tissot in-12
6 Réflexions d’Holland 8o 2 vol.
6 Idylles de Gessner avec les Contes de Diderot
12 Instructions sur la nature et l’usage de l’eau de chaux
1 Mille et une nuits in-12 6 vol.
1 Voyageur français in-12 18 vol.
2 Abrégé de l’histoire ancienne par Tailhé8o 5 vol. 1775 figures
3 Aventures de Télémaque in-12 figures
1 Caractères de Madame de Puysieux 2 vol. 8o
3 Eloge du chevalier [d’Eon] in-12 figures
3 Lettres du chevalier Boufflers à sa mère 8o
6 Confidences d’une jolie femme
By compiling statistics from documents of this kind, month after month, it is possible to enjoy a clear view of the demand for literature in a provincial capital; and the statistical picture can be filled out with concrete detail, because Charmet’s close relations with the STN led him to accompany his orders with personal observations on the state of the book market.
When he began to deal with the STN, Charmet’s orders included a small but significant proportion of illegal books—irreligious, erotic, and seditious works known in the trade as “livres philosophiques.” In a letter of October 16, 1774, for example, he asked for a good deal of Voltaire: Lettres philosophiques, La Pucelle d’Orléans, and La Henriade. A month later, he wanted more copies of Lettres philosophiques and La Pucelle, some outright atheism (Système de la nature), and radical political works that attacked the Maupeou ministry, which had subjugated the parlements during the last years of Louis XV’s reign. Louis XVI, who ascended the throne on May 10, 1774 restored the old judicial system, which left room for the parlements to assert considerable political power, but the supposed “despotism” of Maupeou and the scandals of the court under Louis XV remained hot topics well into the 1780s, especially in parlementary cities like Besançon. When the STN informed him that it soon would have a three-volume edition of Journal historique de la revolution opérée dans la constitution de la monarchie française par M. de Maupeou in stock, Charmet jumped at the chance to make some quick sales. He ordered 25 copies sight unseen on November 8, 1774, and he promised to take 100 if he found that it was “bien fait.”
What counted as “bien fait” remained implicit. The term included considerations of quality as well as salability, but the potential for sales remained Charmet’s primary consideration. Like many booksellers, he seized on opportunities to cash in on the reading public’s fascination with the twin themes of decadence and despotism in Versailles; but he did not want to fill his shop with the crudest “libelles,” as these works were known. On September 30, 1775, he wrote: “Vous me ferez plaisir de m’envoyer par le courrier…2 Mémoires de Louis XV octavo afin que je voie ce que c’est. Si l’ouvrage est bon et bien fait pour la vente, j’en prendrai un cent. Mais si c’est un ouvrage dans le goût du Précis de Mme du Barry [that is, the obscene La Gazette de Cythère, ou aventures galantes et récentes arrivées dans les principales villes de l’Europe, traduite de l’anglais, à la fin de laquelle on a joint le Précis historique de la vie de Mad. la comtesse du Barry], j’en aurai assez de 12 exemplaires. » He evidently decided the Mémoires de Louis XV were good enough to be recommended to his customers, because he complained when the STN failed to ship them to him on time: “Ce Mémoires de Louis XV me fait tourmenter journellement par ceux à qui j’en ai malheureusement parlé trop tôt.” Charmet also spotted Vie privée de Louis XV, a spicy, four-volume survey of Louis XV’s entire reign published in 1781, as a potential best-seller. But the demand for it was so great at the level of the publisher-wholesalers that the STN could not supply him adequately. After a two-week delay, it got 26 copies to him, but he wanted 26 more, complaining that his competitors had already received shipments from other suppliers. Caught short, the STN explained that it had made a deal for 200 cut-rate copies with another publisher, but he had reneged on the agreement in order to make some quick cash by selling them himself.
The scramble to make the most of the demand for scandalous political literature began to taper off in late 1781, according to Charmet’s calculation. Nonetheless, he advised the STN to print a new edition of the four-volume chronique scandaleuse known as L’Espion anglais: “Mais ce livre, qui est bon, dont 25 exemplaires me suffiraient, commence aussi à s’user. Il est débité ici 100 exemplaires de cet ouvrage; mais L’Observateur anglais, les Mémoires secrets, L’Espion français, et celui dont est question, cela fait beaucoup d’ouvrages sur la même matière et dont le public est abondamment fourni. »
Charmet also detected a demand for serious political works, especially the polemical literature related to Jacques Necker and his measures as finance minister from 1776 to 1781. He acquired 100 copies of Compte rendu au roi, Necker’s extraordinary public report on the state’s finances, which triggered the polemics in 1781. (It does not show up in the statistics of Charmet’s orders from the STN, because it came to him through a deal arranged with Lépagnez, another bookseller in Besançon.) As soon as the STN informed him that it was printing Necker’s treatise on provincial administration, he sent an advance order for 100 copies and ordered 67 more on different occasions from June, 1781 to June, 1785. Charmet also kept a close watch on the pamphlet literature that followed the collapse of Necker’s ministry in 1781. One anti-Neckerite pamphlet, Lettre de M. le marquis de Carraccioli à M. d’Alembert, circulated in manuscript and stirred up a great deal of interest in Besançon, he reported to the STN. He recommended that it print a quick edition, as “Le moment est favorable pour la vente.” It did so, and he snapped up 100 copies. He encouraged it to reprint other pamphlets, including Les Comments and Lettre d’un ami à M. Necker, keeping to the same format as the Compte rendu so that they could be sold together. On October 9, 1781, the STN sounded him about the prospects of publishing a cheap reprint of a three-volume collection of works for and against Necker that Jean-François Bassompierre was then printing in Geneva. He advised against it, because the market, at least in Besançon, seemed to be satiated. The STN eventually abandoned this project, but it supplied Charmet with 19 copies of Collection complète de tous les ouvrages pour & contre M. Necker, which it apparently procured by means of an exchange with Bassompierre.
Inside information was crucial in the publishing business of the kind practiced by the STN. Before deciding to print or reprint a book, it needed to learn as much as possible about what its competitors planned to produce and what its customers were likely to order. It constantly sought advice from a few, highly trusted and well informed booksellers with whom it maintained close relations. In June, 1781, for example, it asked Charmet his opinion about two works that it was considering: Philosophie de la nature, an anti-Christian tract by Delisle de Sales and Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes by the abbé Raynal. Both had been transformed into potential best-sellers by being condemned by the French authorities, but they were being reprinted in many places. Could the market support a new edition of each? the STN asked. Charmet advised against Philosophie de la nature: “Je crois cet article bien usé ainsi que tous les livres philosophiques en général dont on nous demande très peu depuis plus d’une année. » But Raynal’s work was another matter : « Quant à l’édition projetée de l’abbé Raynal, je trouve très excellente cette entreprise suivant votre plan. Elle sera de grand débit, mais il faut de la diligence dans l’exécution et du beau papier. Grasset de Lausanne nous annonce cette édition pour le mois de juin. Si l’édition est prompte, je pourrai m’en arranger pour 50 exemplaires. » As it happened, the STN did not produce its edition of Raynal until nearly two years later, but Charmet continued to supply it with reports about other reprints, notably the edition of the Histoire philosophique being produced in Lausanne in 1781.
Charmet picked up a great deal of information from his correspondence and his travels among the publishing houses of Switzerland and Lyon. Not only did he supply his friends in Neuchâtel with advice about what to pirate, but he also sent them copies of freshly published books so that they could begin work in their printing shop in time to beat their competitors to the market. In February and March, 1777, he provided them with two potential best-sellers, Les Incas, an important philosophical novel by Jean-François Marmontel, and a full set of Beaumarchais’s enormously popular Mémoires from his legal battles with Louis-Valentin Goesman under the Maupeou parlement.
Thanks to messages they picked up from the professional grape vine, Charmet and his wife also helped the STN protect itself against the tricks of the trade. In April, 1782, Charmet warned the STN that a book it planned to reprint, Recherches philosophiques et historiques sur le célibat, had been selling, and selling very well, for the last seven months under another title, Les inconvénients du célibat des prêtres. Publishers often manufactured misleading title pages in order to sell old material in new dress; and to find out what was going on in other printing shops, they sometimes resorted to what today would be called industrial espionage. In July 1784 Mme Charmet warned the Neuchâtelois that one of their workers was secretly supplying a publisher in Lyon with sheets of Mercier’s Mon Bonnet de nuit while they were printing the original edition.
The letters from Besançon also indicate what authors most attracted local readers and, to a certain extent, who those readers were. In addition to Voltaire and Rousseau, three writers stood out during the 1780s: the abbé Raynal, the comte de Mirabeau, and Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet. The condemnation of Raynal’s Histoire philosophique in 1781and his flight into exile, made him a celebrity and his book a best-seller. Mirabeau’s fiery denunciation of the abuses of state power, Des Lettres de cachet et des prisons d’état, printed in Neuchâtel by Fauche fils aîné et Cie., had special appeal in Besançon, where he had inflamed imaginations by escaping from the nearby prison in the Château de Joux with the wife of an elderly magistrate. When Mme Charmet took over the business in 1782, she implored the STN to get a shipment to her (along with Mirabeau’s pornographic Ma Conversion, later reprinted as Le Libertin de qualité) in time for the parlement’s opening session in the fall. Linguet’s Mémoires sur la Bastille struck a similar theme and had equal appeal for a city full of lawyers. As a lawyer turned polemical journalist, Linguet had many readers in Besançon. Charmet described his Lettre de M. Linguet à M. le comte de Vergennes, ministre des affaires étrangères en France as the hottest work on the market in June 1777: “Attrape qui peut un exemplaire pour 25 louis d’or….Il y en a de vendues 4 à 5 louis. » Three years later, Mme Charmet was sure she could sell plenty of copies of the Mémoires sur la Bastille, if only the STN could get its shipment to her on time. In her view (and she seemed to be as astute an observer of the market as her husband) the books that sold best were those written with “force,” at least in the field of politics and current events. She assured the STN that a posthumous edition of Turgot’s works was in great demand in 1787, because, “ce livre est écrit avec force et énergie.” For the same reason, the works of Louis Sébastien Mercier sold well—but not all of them. His Tableau de Paris had attracted a great many customers, but not his Réduction de Paris: « Le public n’a rien trouvé de neuf dans cet ouvrage, n’y court pas beaucoup, malgré la force de la préface, qui est matière rebattue. »
Neither Charmet nor his wife described the nature of that public, but they scattered enough remarks through their letters to indicate its general character. In addition to its parlement, Besançon had two important administrative courts, a Cour des aides and a Chambre des comptes; a large garrison (three regiments plus a cavalry regiment); an intendancy; headquarters for the regional tax farm; a university with four faculties; and the seat of an archbishopric along with many religious institutions. Readers connected with the law probably constituted the largest proportion of the bookshop’s clientele. Charmet encouraged the STN to publish legal treatises in May 1777, and he estimated the number of copies that it could sell in cities with parlements. (Paris and Besançon headed the list at 100 copies each; Aix-en-Provence came last with 40.) In March 1785 Mme Charmet said her customers were clamoring for Un Indépendant à l’ordre des avocats sur la décadence du barreau en France, an attack on the French bar by Jacques-Pierre Brissot, owing to «la circonstance du barreau actuel de notre ville. » The few references to individual customers in the letters from Besançon included a marquis, a magistrate, a canon from the cathedral, the director of the indirect tax administration (directeur général des fermes à Besançon) and four army officers. The garrison certainly accounted for many sales. In February 1780, Charmet wrote that he could not order any more copies of the memoirs of the war minister Claude Louis de Saint-Germain, because the current war had depleted the number of soldiers stationed in Besançon. And in 1787, Mme Charmet said she would not know how many copies of the works of Frederick II to order until she knew how many soldiers would be in the garrison at the time of its publication. None of the letters mentioned sales among the lower ranks of the population, although Besançon and the surrounding area had an unusually high rate of literacy (about 80 percent among adult males). But like many provincial booksellers, Charmet used his shop as the site of a cabinet littéraire or reading club, where members paid a small fee for access to the books in his stock. Anyone who crossed its threshold was likely to encounter persons from a variety of stations in the professional and upper classes but not artisans and workers.
If the correspondence does not contain enough information for one to sketch a sociological profile of Charmet’s customers, it abounds in details about another aspect of the book trade: communication and transportation. Next to the address on the outside of every letter, the clerks of the STN wrote a large R followed by numbers that look like a fraction. The top number, for reçu, indicated the date when the letter arrived, and the bottom one, for répondu, stood for the date of the STN’s reply, which it also copied into the large registers known as “Copies de lettres.” Therefore, it is possible to follow the epistolary exchanges with great precision. The shipments of books, from the time of their ordering to the time of their arrival, can also be traced, along with the routes they followed. Wrapped in bales and accompanied by a bill of lading, the shipments had to receive an acquit à caution (a customs certificate) and a lead seal from French customs officials in the bureau d’entrée at Frambourg on the French-Swiss border. They could then proceed to a ville d’entrée, where the acquit à caution would be discharged and returned to the border station, the seal would be broken, and the contents would be inspected by a designated official, sometimes a police inspector but more often a bookseller empowered to confiscate pirated and prohibited works. (For details on this system, click on the links to “Middlemen and Smugglers.”) Charmet fulfilled this function in Besançon, which served as a ville d’entrée and acquired full status as part of the state surveillance system after the royal edicts on the book trade in 1777 made it the seat of a chambresyndicale of the booksellers’ guild. Charmet then became the syndic. In his letters to the STN, he explained that his colleagues wanted him to take on this responsibility, although he did not run a very large enterprise. Despite the sixteen booksellers and printers listed in the Almanach de la librairie, only three or four of them did much business, according to Charmet. His shop in the rue St. Pierre may have been modest, but it seems to have served as the heart of the book trade in the entire province.
It certainly was integrated in the life of the city, including the highest levels of the local power structure. Charmet cultivated key officials in the intendancy and the taxation administration (Fermegénérale). Before the installation of the chambresyndicale in 1778, the bales of books were cleared at the tax office when they arrived at the city limits and then were inspected at the intendancy. In a letter of August 13, 1775, Charmet explained that he participated in the inspections and bribed the intendant’s employees so that they merely took a cursory look at the sheets in the top of the bales. Therefore, the STN should pack all the forbidden books in the bottom.
Charmet described the system in more detail in a letter of September 30, 1775. Thanks to special “permissions de l’intendance,” he could expedite the procedure at the bureau of Frambourg, and the STN could also help him clear forbidden books at the intendancy by larding their sheets inside those of legal works and by falsifying the receipts that he showed to the officials at the intendancy. Sometimes he could flash a receipt, and they would let him collect a bale without any inspection. This special treatment made it possible for him to serve the STN as a shipping agent by forwarding their bales to Paris and other destinations inside France. He could even intervene to get the release of forbidden books in cases where they had been confiscated along the route. In early September 1775, Charmet learned that three bales had recently been seized in Frambourg. If they had been shipped by the STN, he wrote, he could come to its rescue, even though they were only being sent to him for forwarding to others: “Je remuerais mes grands ressorts pour vous en tirer…mais…il faut garder les protections pour soi dans des cas urgents.”
Later letters provided more details of how Charmet used his connections to help the STN with confiscated shipments. The case of the three bales turned out to be difficult, because they contained copies of Mirabeau’s Essai sur le despotisme, which the French government tried to suppress by means of special orders sent through the General Tax Farm in Paris without informing the intendant. Charmet worried that this incident would make it difficult for the STN to get future shipments to him, especially if the employees in Besançon’s tax office intervened in the inspection process. “S’ils sont méchants, je serai peut-être mordu,” he wrote on October 4, 1775. “Je verrai à leur air si elle [a balle en route with some forbidden books] passe bien, si je peux en faire passer d’autres tout de suite….Je vous réitère toujours les offres de mon petit pouvoir. Mais permettez que je prenne les précautions requises….Excusez mon verbiage. C’est un malade qui se plaint. » The confidential tone of the letter indicated how closely Charmet had become linked to the STN, but its emphasis on caution expressed the most important factor in his relations with the Neuchâtelois. He might sound like a veteran of the underground trade, but he never dealt heavily in forbidden books and he always avoided risks.
As the case of the three confiscated bales worked its way through the French bureaucracy, Charmet reported that it would have serious consequences. Some middlemen who had been compromised by the shipment would be fined 2,000 livres compounded by symbolic measures—a “peine diffamatoire” and a book burning. Fortunately, he had not been implicated, and above all he felt confident of the intendant’s support: “…Il faudra que ce soit lui qui prononce définitivement…Il est sûr qu’ayant été ébruité que c’étaient des mauvais livres, il y aura une brûlure faite au milieu de la cour de l’intendance, et cela pour apaiser les sots. Il vaudrait bien mieux y substituer les Dissertations [Dissertation sur l’établissement de l’abbaye de St. Claude, a book that had sold so badly that Charmet thought it should be pulped]. » To clear the way for the resumption of their trade, he had had to resort to « civilités palpables »--that is, bribery, including two copies of Raynal’s Histoire philosophique, bound in morocco with gold tooling, which he planned to present to the intendant.
This kind of “civility” suggests the extent to which the Enlightenment had penetrated the top levels of the French administration, but the intendant’s protection did not extend to the toleration of radical political works. Charmet believed that the attempt to suppress the Essai sur le despotisme lay behind the unusual vigilance at the Swiss border. Because Mirabeau had had his tract printed by Fauche fils aîné et Cie. in Neuchâtel, everything coming from Neuchâtel was suspicious. “Ne vous chargez pas de l’Essai sur le despotisme pour faire passer par ici, » Charmet warned in a letter of December 7, 1775. « Il y a des ordres à ce sujet si rigoureux qu’ils sont en partie cause de la rigidité de Frambourg. Cela pourra faire de la peine à l’auteur, qui est connu, et à l’imprimeur par la voie de l’ambassadeur de Soleure. Le ministre veut sévir vivement à cet occasion….Il y a eu à ce sujet grand tapage à Pontarlier. » Eight bales from the STN were seized in Frambourg in early December. By drawing on his influence with the intendant and more bribery, Charmet managed to pry seven of them loose from the customs officials, who had received secret orders to be vigilant from the ministry in Versailles. But this disaster put an end to Charmet’s services as a shipping agent for the STN—not definitively, however, because new possibilities arose in 1778, when he became the syndic of Besançon’s new chambresyndicale.
Charmet’s main responsibility in that position was to search shipments of books in order to seize anything illegal. Therefore, as soon as it heard of his new role, the STN asked him to expedite its shipments everywhere in France. But he worried that a police inspector, who was to accompany him in clearing the bales, would make it impossible to cheat in discharging the acquits à caution, especially as he had heard that the French government wanted the new regulations of 1777 enforced rigorously. Rigorous enforcement could bar the way for pirated as well as prohibited books, and Charmet was determined to avoid all risks: “Quant à la partie philosophique, je ne ferai plus dans ce genre. La nouvelle administration de la librairie nous en ôtera tous les moyens, » he announced in a letter of February 20, 1778. In fact, he did continue to order a few highly illegal works from the STN—but only for sale in his own shop. He would not forward any to booksellers located elsewhere in France.
In January 1780, Charmet mentioned one last possibility for keeping open some channels of the underground book trade. If the STN wanted to get a shipment to a bookseller in a town that did not have a chambre syndicale, he could issue a false certificat de visite, saying that it had been inspected in Besançon, and it could continue to its destination undisturbed. In the end, however, he decided that this maneuver also was too risky, because shipments could be diverted to chambressyndicales at any point along their route; and if they were then found to contain illegal works, he would be in serious trouble. Undeterred, the STN kept asking him to provide services. Couldn’t he help them open a direct route to the Paris market by leaning on his contacts in Dijon? Wouldn’t he consider slipping shipments through Besançon at the going rate charged by smugglers at the border, 15 livres per quintal? The answer was always no. Charmet continued to include illegal works in his own trade, but he refused to take any chances, and by 1783 he had ceased to deal heavily with the STN.
It was in January 1783 (or perhaps at the end of December) that Charmet died. From then on, Mme Charmet continued the business. Her letters open up the possibility of studying another aspect of the book trade: the role of women and especially of widows, who often participated actively in all aspects of the book industry, including peddling and printing. The letters of Mme Charmet reveal a shrewd understanding of the trade and a remarkable command of the French language. Provincial booksellers frequently went on the road, peddling their wares to customers in the countryside, inspecting supply lines, and negotiating with the suppliers. In their absence, their wives sometimes took over the correspondence, and at such times the quality of the letters usually declined, both in spelling and in grammar. But Mme Charmet had an excellent hand, and she did not shrink from using the past subjunctive tense. In reading through the dossier, one has a vivid impression of a husband-and-wife team struggling to cope with shifting political and economic circumstances—and also with personal disaster. Mixed in with the running account of commercial affairs are scattered references to Charmet’s health, parenthetical at first and then more urgent until, in the midst of business-as-usual, death strikes.
Mme Charmet first mentioned her husband’s illness on September 25, 1781, when he had returned from one of his many business trips to his suppliers in Switzerland and his clients in the Franche-Comté. He recovered well enough to resume the correspondence and the trips during the next twelve months. But on September 6, 1782, Mme Charmet reported that he had arrived a week ago, “très malade,” from another journey: “Le commencement de sa maladie l’a pris en voyage. Il a voulu vaincre le mal, et il a été vaincu. Le peu de soin qu’il a pris de lui et les remèdes contraires ont rendu sa maladie plus longue et plus opiniâtre. J’espère cependant qu’il s’en tirera. Mais il est très décidé qu’elle sera fort longue.” The STN sent its sympathy, and in a letter of October 2 Mme Charmet replied that things looked better: “Nous sommes tous très heureux d’en être quitte pour la peur et pour du temps.” But by November 3 her husband had suffered a relapse. He could not get out of bed or pay any attention to the business, which had taken a turn for the worse. The STN helped by agreeing to delay the payment of a debt. It also recommended some kind of medication, which was provided by a mutual friend in Besançon. Mme Charmet sent a letter of thanks on November 15, saying that she had not given up hope, although Charmet had remained bed-ridden for three months and the doctors gave contradictory prognoses. The STN’s generosity, she wrote, “…lui a fait verser des larmes de reconnaissance envers tout ce qui vous appartient….Actuellement à peine peut-il signer son nom. » Six weeks later, he was dead.
By January 9, Mme Charmet had settled the estate and resumed the correspondence. She would continue the business by herself, she wrote to the STN, and by hard work she would clear off the accumulation of debt. Not only had the STN sent its sympathy, but it had formally renewed its “confiance” in the business, beginning with a further extension of the payments she owed. From this point on, her letters show her plunged back in the affairs of the shop, sounding the preferences of her customers, ordering books, intervening to get shipments cleared through inspections, and providing confidential information about the hazards of shipping books across the border.
In the first months of 1783, widow Charmet was especially eager to profit from the demand for two of the scandalous works by Mirabeau, Des Lettres de cachet et des prisons d’état and Ma Conversion. She knew all about the circumstances of their publication, a complex story of disputes within the Fauche family of Neuchâtel, where they were originally published, and piracy in Lausanne, where a cheap reprint was produced. She ordered all of her copies from the STN, which, as she assured it, always had her “préférence” in buying supplies, but it had difficulty in extricating its own supply from the embroiled Swiss publishers. Other booksellers in Besançon managed to stock their shops with these hot-selling items before they reached Mme Charmet; so she had to watch helplessly while they creamed off the demand. But she hoped to have better luck with an equally sensational work, Linguet’s Mémoires sur la Bastille. Genevan sources said an edition was being produced in Lausanne. It was sure to sell well, she wrote, if only the STN could get a shipment to her on time.
This kind of information—what was in demand, what was being printed, who was pirating whom—circulated constantly through the correspondence of booksellers. Widow Charmet kept attuned to the latest news, and like her husband before her she also passed on insider information of the kind that was reserved for correspondents tied by the closest bonds of “confiance.” In July 1783, she warned the STN that the French authorities were planning to crack down on the trade from Neuchâtel, because they had arrested Jacques Mallet, the distributor of Mirabeau’s works, who had confessed everything about their publication during his interrogation in the Bastille. The publisher was Fauche fils aîné et Cie., which had been founded in Neuchâtel by Jonas Fauche, the son of Samuel Fauche, a founding partner of the STN. Samuel had set up shop on his own after a dispute with the other STN partners, and Jonas did the same after quarreling with him. The feuding among the Neuchâtel publishers played into the hands of the French authorities and disrupted the supply lines, because the Neuchâtelois all used the same route through the Jura Mountains in trying to get books to Besançon. If one publisher’s shipment was seized, as happened in the case of the thirteen bales in 1783, all other shipments were endangered.
The loss of occasional shipments was a hazard of the trade, but in 1783 the French changed the rules of the game. Determined to block the diffusion of libels against the court and government, the comte de Vergennes, France’s foreign minister, issued an order requiring that all shipments of books from abroad be sent to Paris for rigorous inspection, no matter what their destination. Therefore, a bale of books shipped from Neuchâtel to Besançon had to make a ruinously expensive detour, unless the STN found an effective smuggling route. It never did, although it managed to get a few shipments to widow Charmet, who kept complaining that it failed to do as well as other suppliers, who somehow had succeeded in circumventing the regulation. For her part, she refused to take any risks. She reported that demand had held up for some kinds of literature, such as books on administrative affairs, which would interest the lawyers and magistrates connected with Besançon’s parlement. Turgot’s Oeuvres posthumes would sell well, she reported, and she had high hopes for the works of Frederick II and for a mathematical treatise, which ought to appeal to the artillery officers in the garrison. But there was no getting around it: business was bad: “Notre commerce est dans un état affreux depuis quelque temps,” she lamented in a letter of July 17, 1785.
The STN did not need to be told. The downturn in the book trade had affected its finances so severely that it had to suspend the payments on its outstanding bills of exchange at the end of 1783. A group of local investors came to its rescue, and it continued under new management for the rest of the decade—but on a reduced scale while concentrating on selling off the enormous stock that it had accumulated in its warehouse. When Widow Charmet learned of its difficulties, she sent a sympathetic letter, reaffirming her “confiance,” just as it had done to her during her crisis: “…Il était presque impossible que vous ne vous trouvassiez compris dans cette révolution générale du commerce. Le manque de numéraire, votre grande confiance, les entraves de la librairie, toutes ces choses réunies ne pourrait que vous nuire infiniment. » Far from reviving on the eve of the Revolution, the book trade, or at least the sector of it between Neuchâtel and Besançon, had gone into decline. Widow Charmet continued to correspond with the STN until October 1788, but by then, France was spinning into a revolution, and the history of books had moved into a new phase.
Additional Charmet Letters (Letters not included in Search Letters below)