A Literary Tour de France

          Contemporary descriptions of Poitiers did not make it sound attractive: narrow, badly-paved streets; dilapidated houses; and little trade with the outside world, except in the wool stockings and caps manufactured by impoverished local artisans.  Its population remained stagnant throughout the eighteenth century at about 18,000 souls, “pauvres par le défaut du commerce et par leur paresse naturelle.”  To be sure, Poitiers was a provincial capital with an intendancy and some important judicial and administrative bodies.  It had a dozen booksellers in 1777, and they could count on customers from the wealthier inhabitants—described as “doux, spirituels, peu actifs, peu propres au commerce”—and from the local garrison and the university, which had 200 students enrolled in its faculty of law. 

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          Favarger did not arrive in a happy frame of mind in October 1778.  It had been pouring rain, and his horse, after collapsing many times on the muddy roads north of Bordeaux, could not go further.  He sold it for four louis and bought a sturdier mount for 9 louis—a heavy blow to his expense account and perhaps to his morale, because he seemed to have become attached to the animal, which had carried him over hundreds of leagues since their departure from Neuchâtel nearly four months earlier. 

When he surveyed the booksellers, Favarger found nearly all of them unpromising.  He wrote off most as “pas bons.”  Four qualified as “médiocres,” but they did not do enough business to support the cost of shipments from Switzerland.  One, Jacques Bobin, had sent a large order in December, 1776, but the STN refused to supply him, because it did not trust his ability to pay his bills.  He kept a stall inside Poitier’s Palais de justice and catered to a clientele of lawyers.  According to the book trade survey of 1764, he was a peddler who could neither read nor write.  His letters to the STN are perfectly legible, but they may have been drafted by his son, who had entered the clergy against the father’s will and then left it to collaborate in the business.  In one letter, Bobin (or his son, writing in his name), said frankly: “Mes intentions n’étant pas d’aveugler personne par un étalage désordonné, je ne rougirai jamais de dire que je n’ai pas grande fortune. »  He later agreed to pay in cash, and in 1782 the STN sent him a shipment with a wide variety of books, none of them illegal, but it took so long and cost so much that he never ordered any more. 

Only two booksellers had the capacity to enter into sustained relations with the STN, according to Favarger’s estimate.  One was Félix Faulcon, the syndic of the local chambre syndicale.  Favarger found him to be “un singulier personnage,” so self-important in his role as syndic that he would not purchase any pirated books.  Michel-Vincent Chevrier was another story.  He promised to help the STN get its bales past Faulcon when they were inspected in the chambre syndicale, and he wanted to expand his trade with the STN if they could agree on terms. 

          The effort to arrive at mutually advantageous terms was the main theme of the letters that the STN had exchanged with Chevrier since June 1772.  The negotiations are worth following, because they give a detailed account of the obstacles that had to be overcome for a bookseller in the west of France to draw supplies from a publisher-wholesaler in Switzerland.  The most important obstacle in 1772 was the import duty of 28 livres per hundredweight on bales of books.  In order to avoid paying the tax, which made its books prohibitively expensive, and also to get highly illegal works to its customers, the STN relied on smugglers (see the dossiers under “Middlemen and Smugglers” on this website).  But the “insurers” who transported its shipments across the border to secret entrepôts inside France—and reimbursed the value of the merchandise if their “porters” were caught—constantly ran into difficulties.  Therefore, after receiving a trial order from Chevrier in June, the STN asked whether he had an agent in Lyon or Paris who could clear its shipments past inspection in the chambres syndicales.  He did not, Chevrier replied, but the Société typographique de Bouillon managed to get its books to him, and the STN ought to be able to do the same. 

Although forbidden books made up only a small proportion of his trade, Chevrier had an expert’s knowledge of them.  The STN had sent him a manuscript catalogue, entitled “livres philosophiques,” of the most illegal works that it kept in stock.  He sent back a similar “catalogue de livres philosophiques,” which he had procured from another source and which included all the illegal literature that he wanted to order: 67 titles arranged alphabetically, except for four popular pornographic works—Thérèse philosophe, L’Académie des dames, La Religieuse en chemise, and Margot la ravaudeuse—which he added at the end (see Chevrier’s letter of December 20, 1722, which is transcribed with all his other letters on this website).  Aside from this erotic element, Chevrier’s list covered the full gamut of irreligious literature that was then available in print.  A great deal of it came from the corpus of clandestine manuscripts that had circulated widely during the first half of the century.  It included translations of works by English deists and free-thinkers—Toland, Collins, Bolingbrook, and Woolston—along with French tracts that extended from Voltairean anticlericalism to the atheistic writings of the d’Holbach circle.  Relatively few of these books made it to Poitiers, however, because Chevrier did not commit himself to purchasing them until the STN set up a safe route to his bookshop.

A trial shipment, sent through Lyon, had made it without mishap in December, 1772, but it took five months en route.  If only the STN could solve the shipping problem, Chevrier promised, he would give it a great deal of business.  In fact, he would take a baker’s dozen of everything it printed along with books from its general stock in exchange for a monopoly of its trade within thirty leagues of his shop.  The STN would have to cover all costs and risks as far as Lyon, but in exchange for this service, he would pay 4 percent more than the sales price—or 5 percent if it could get the bales to Orléans, where he had an agent named Fleury who could handle them safely.  Although the STN found this proposition attractive, it insisted that the supplementary charge for shipping as far as Orléans be 10 percent and that the payment be due three months after the bales left Neuchâtel.  Chevrier replied with a counter-proposal: 10 percent for delivery right up to his shop.  He would pay the wagoner and deduct that sum from the payment for the books, which he would make a year after their arrival. 

The STN rejected that proposal, supporting its argument with some basic arithmetic.  In a letter of April 26, 1773, it added up the costs, expressed in percentages of the value of the books, as follows:

Shipping, Neuchâtel-Poitiers………………9 %

Free 13th copy……………………………...8 & 1/3

Insurance [smuggling] to cover risks.……16

Cost of a year’s delay in payment………...5_____

                                                                  38 & 1/3 %      

Yet Chevrier had calculated that the STN could cover all those costs at only 9 percent of the value of the merchandise, making a difference of 29 1/3 % in their respective estimates—more than the STN could afford.  It therefore made what it said was its final offer.  It would cover all costs and risks to Orléans for 10 percent over the list price and payment in cash, or 15 percent and payment in one year.  As Chevrier had already placed another order and it had sent off the shipment, it wrote a note (“billet à présentation”) on him for his accumulated debt: 474 livres, 15 sous, payable within ten days of its presentation.

          Chevrier refused to accept the note.  The last shipment had not even arrived, he objected.  When and if the bale made it to Widow Fleury’s warehouse in Orléans (her husband had recently died and she had taken over the family business) he would pay for it in a note of his own, due to mature in a year, allowing an extra 10 percent to cover transport and risks.  He warned the STN that he could easily do without their trade, because he could procure all of the books it sold from suppliers in Bouillon and Holland with whom he did a great deal of business.  “J’aurai regret si nous cessons de faire des affaires ensemble, mais j’aime mieux n’en point faire que de les faire à mon désavantage.” 

          Esoteric as it may seem to the modern reader, this debate illuminates some of the basic economic conditions of the book trade.  Chevrier and the STN expected to do business on a large scale, and therefore a great deal of money hung on every detail of their negotiation.  In answering Chevrier’s objections, the STN apologized for writing a note on him without adequate warning but insisted that it could not modify its terms—not for any lack of respect, but only because of “le calcul, science demonstrative.”  In reply, Chevrier said that he, too, was sorry, but he would not modify his terms: “Vous perdez une bonne pratique qui aurait débité beaucoup de vos sortes et qui vous aurait bien payé. »  Moreover, he still had not received two of the STN’s shipments.

          They had been delayed, it turned out, by the inability of the STN’s principal “insurer,” Guillon l’aîné, to smuggle them across the border near Clairvaux-les-lacs.  In a letter of August 3, 1777, it explained that it had made arrangements with

 …des gens qui étaient annoncés comme fort experts dans les expéditions de la nature de celle dont il s’agissait.  Nous leur avions donné notre confiance et expédié divers ballots.  Mais un temps considérable s’est écoulé sans recevoir aucunes nouvelles de leur part.  Nous nous sommes vus obligés d’envoyer un de nos commis sur les lieux, et son rapport nous a appris que ces gens-là s’étaient engagés à faire plus qu’ils ne pouvaient ou n’osaient entreprendre.

Therefore, the STN had been forced to send the two shipments by mule along a safe but circuitous mountain route that led through Limoges.  They did not reach Chevrier until December, 1773, eleven and nine months respectively after their departure from Neuchâtel.  The transport cost 160 livres, 15 sous for merchandise valued at 626 livres, 19 sous, and 9 deniers.

          Chevrier paid his bill at 10 percent above the list-price of the books in notes with six-month maturity, and he offered to continue paying at that rate if the STN could get its shipments free of transport charges and risks to Orléans.  That arrangement looked feasible in 1774, because the French government reduced and then revoked the duty, which had made all book imports prohibitively expensive.  As it no longer had to deal with tax inspectors, the STN could now ship its books through Lyon, using its own agents to avoid confiscations in the Lyonnais chambre syndicale.  Its trade with Chevrier resumed and continued for eighteen months, although he continued to complain about delays and also about damages: the STN’s warehouse workers did not pack the bales tightly enough and therefore the sheets were sometimes torn by friction against the ropes. 

A more serious problem arose in mid-1775.  Chevrier discovered that Jean-François Malherbe, a dealer in Loudun, eight leagues away, was underselling him with STN books.  Malherbe (see his letters on this website) had no right to engage in the book trade, because he had not been received in a chambre syndicale and had not bought a license (brevet de libraire).  But he ordered large shipments from Neuchâtel, delaying payment for them while selling them off at reduced prices for cash, mainly to peddlers who hawked them throughout Poitou and the Loire Valley. 

          The STN should never have let Malherbe inveigle it into sending books, but his orders promised to open up a large market just at the time when established booksellers like Chevrier in Poitiers, Pavie in La Rochelle, and Couret de Villeneuve in Orléans were driving unbearably hard bargains.  They reacted with predictable anger as soon as they learned about this competition from an outsider.  Chevrier was especially indignant:

Si encore le sieur Malherbe était libraire, je ne serais pas si fâché.  Mais un homme qui n’a aucune notion de librairie, qui promène dans tout Poitiers et à tous les particuliers que quiconque désire des livres, il n’a qu’à s’adresser à lui et qu’il les leur fournira à un sol la feuille [the STN’s list price for booksellers], vous penserez, je crois avec moi, que ceci n’est pas gracieux.

Although Chevrier sent an order through Favarger in October, 1778, the STN still found his terms—delivery free of risks and costs to Orléans without immediate payment—unacceptable. It never did any more business with him after that date.

          Despite all these difficulties, Chevrier ordered enough books for one to assess the general pattern of his trade.  Also, as he mentioned in several letters, he could obtain the same books as those offered by the STN from other publisher-wholesalers such as the Société typographique de Bouillon with whom he regularly did business.  Since he was the most important bookseller in Poitou, the statistics drawn from his orders provide at least an approximate indication of the demand for literature throughout the province. 

Like Pavie in La Rochelle, Chevrier catered to the Huguenots in the area.  He sold many Protestant editions of the Bible and the psalms.  Mercier’s Rousseauistic, utopian fantasy, L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante, stood second on the list of books he ordered most, and it was followed by the works of Rousseau.  Chevrier also ordered a great deal of Voltaire and Raynal and several Holbachean works, though none of them in large number.  The Enlightenment certainly occupied a large place in his trade.  History was also important, as indicated by his orders for Paul-François Velly’s Histoire de France, Jacques Tailhe’s Abrégé de l’histoire ancienne de Monsieur Rollin, and William Robertson’s Histoire de l’Amérique.  Chevrier spiced up his orders with some erotic « livres philosophiques » such as Margot la ravaudeuse.   But he showed relatively little interest in light fiction, despite an order for the works of Mme Riccoboni.  On the whole, he favored standard fare such as Molière’s works and the popular Dictionnaire raisonné universel d’histoire naturelle by Jacques-Christophe Valmont de Bomare.  Judging from his success, Chevrier understood the book market very well.  His shop, located in Poitiers’s main street, the rue de l’intendance, made the main currents of contemporary literature available throughout the city and much of the surrounding area.