A Literary Tour de France

Constantin Lair typifies the quasi-legal dealers in small towns and at the margins of the book trade.  Selling books was but one of several activities—teaching school, taking in boarders, cultivating a vineyard—that he cobbled together in order to maintain a position in the bourgeoisie of Blois.  His relations with the STN indicate the demand for literature among the local notables, and they are especially revealing about the precarious finances of small-scale bookselling.

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Constantin Lair typifies the small-town entrepreneurs who ran retail businesses on the margins of the official book trade.  They had no legal right to do so, because bookselling was restricted to members of a booksellers’ guild or to dealers who had received authorization from the Book Trade Administration (Direction de la librairie) in Paris.  A protective cover of legality could sometimes be obtained from a local lieutenant general of police, and it was also possible by means of payment and contacts in the government to acquire a certificate (brevet de libraire) to set up shop.  But many individuals simply ordered books from wholesalers like the STN and sold them from their homes, hoping to make a little cash behind the backs of the established dealers and local authorities.

Lair began business in this fashion, having been recommended to the STN by one of its customers, Malherbe of Loudun, an equally illegal entrepreneur.  Malherbe assured the STN that it could open up a lucrative market in Blois, where Lair cut something of a figure among the local notables.  When he began corresponding with the STN in October, 1773, Lair presented himself as a schoolmaster (“maître de pension”) who also owned enough vineyards to profit from the demand for Loire Valley wines.  He taught French to English students who boarded with him, and he probably gave instruction in other subjects to other boarders (in one letter he offered to sell the STN a manuscript of a mathematical textbook.)  Having built “a large and beautiful house,” he also took in travelers and people with business at the regional law court (Conseil supérieur) established at Blois in 1771 during the reorganization of the judicial system under Chancellor Maupeou.  His letters, written in a fine hand, suggest a man of considerable culture.  He had built up a fine library, he wrote with some pride to the STN.  Local notables came to consult it and to enjoy the company of “a society as amusing as it is gracious.”  To accommodate them, he had taken to ordering and selling books.  He received catalogues from suppliers in Paris and elsewhere, and he planned to convert his collection, supplemented by subscriptions to Parisian journals, into a lending library (cabinet littéraire).  This activity had aroused the hostility of the two established booksellers of Blois, but Lair planned to keep them at bay by acquiring a brevet de libraire in Paris.

In Lair’s early letters to the STN, this tiny business sounded like the avocation of a gentleman with a penchant for literature.  They stressed his “inclination by taste for men of letters, whom I esteem and whose works, which are truly useful, I seek to acquire.”  He wrote knowingly about different editions of the Encyclopédie, and he expressed admiration for Voltaire: “It is supernatural that the inimitable M. de Voltaire should do so much work at such an advanced age.”  His orders to the STN included works by the most famous philosophes, along with those of more popular authors such as Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet, whose polemical pamphlets struck him as particularly attractive, owing to their trenchant style and fascinating subject matter.  Not that Lair sounded particularly radical himself insofar as he revealed his own attitudes.  He deplored the decline in the quality of education in France brought about by the suppression of the Jesuit order, and he objected to the anti-Catholic bias of the Protestant Encyclopédie produced by Fortuné-Barthélemy de Félice in Yverdon.

From 1773 to 1775 Lair ordered an increasing number of books from the STN, and his correspondence took on an increasingly commercial tone.  He desired more Voltaire and Rousseau, he wrote, for the “honest and lucrative sales” they would produce.  He also requested “nouveautés” of all kinds—current works of topical interest, the latest novels, and scabrous books.  He could open up a fertile market for the STN, he promised, if it could provide him with “…bagatelles, with those little trifles written with art which conform to the frivolity of our century and are intimately linked to the genius of our nation—that lightness which is sought out so avidly by our stylish youth and little ladies (“nos petits maîtres et nos femmelettes”.)  Some have asked me for libertine novels.  Do you deal in them?”   His clients included “wealthy and inquisitive persons” who placed advance orders with him for the works of Molière, Bolingbrooke, Voltaire, and Rousseau.  One customer wanted them printed on superior Dutch paper and bound in straw-colored calfskin.  Others looked for bargains, such as cheap editions of Diderot’s Encyclopédie and Raynal’s Histoire philosophique.  

Lair’s passing references to contacts and clients—a law professor, a canon from a cathedral, wine growers—suggest a milieu of provincial notables; but he may have emphasized their wealth and worldliness in order to impress the STN, for he needed to win its “confidence,” a key element of business relations in the book trade.  If the STN trusted his ability and willingness to pay, it would send him shipments of books and accept in return promissory notes, remittances on merchant bankers, or bills of exchange due to mature at a future date, usually six or twelve months.  By selling the books, Lair would accumulate enough cash to pay at the due date, or more likely he would endorse over to the STN a note by one of his business contacts that it could negotiate for cash, assuming that the signature on the note also warranted “confidence.”

This credit mechanism prevailed everywhere in the book trade and among merchants in general.  It worked reasonably well in linking retailers to wholesalers, as long as the retailers collected enough cash to honor their notes when they became due.  If they failed to do so, the note would be “protested” upon its presentation to the debtor.  The parties would then negotiate over a settlement, which could take many forms such as the issue of new notes for a larger sum and a later date of maturity.  Meanwhile, the wholesaler’s confidence in the retailer would drop in proportion to the extent of the financial truancy, and the word would spread, making it increasingly difficult for the retailer to order shipments and remain in business.  Cash—in the form of louis d’or or “espèces bien sonnantes”—was chronically short in the capillary system of the book trade.  Marginal dealers like Lair often piled order upon order in an effort to extract cash from their customers, and large firms like the STN felt tempted to fill the orders, because they, too, needed to cover costs and turn a profit.  But the circulation of financial paper frequently failed to keep up with the shipments of printed paper, causing the whole system to suffer.

Lair’s correspondence with the STN provides an opportunity to see how these financial relations, so typical of early modern capitalism, operated in a concrete case.  At first Lair seemed to be “solid,” the favorite term in the book trade for a dealer who acquitted his notes.  In December 1773 he paid for a shipment of the Yverdon Encyclopédie with a remittance on a Parisian source for 252 livres, and he accompanied the payment with a fairly large order of books, including several Enlightenment tracts, which he had arranged to sell to local “amateurs.”  When the next shipment arrived, he wrote that he was pleased with the quality of the editions but not with the shipping costs, which he considered excessive.  He sent in another order nonetheless, offering to pay for it by endorsing over to the STN notes he had received from some cider and brandy merchants from Normandy, who had come through Blois buying wine to compensate for their poor harvest of apples.  Lair’s crop of grapes had been excellent, and he definitely intended to expand his book business by purchasing a “brevet de libraire.” 

At this point, Lair’s letters began to contain troubling symptoms of insolvency.  To be sure, grapes helped sell books, but harvests varied, and the local economy, as he remarked, depended entirely on wine and brandy, “the sole cause of the abundance or rareness of cash” in the region.  The STN did not want to accept notes signed by unknown Normans, and Lair’s remittance for 252 livres was protested when presented for payment in Paris.  But Lair replaced it with another note, assuring the STN that he had 20,000 livres he could draw on if necessary.  His orders continued throughout 1774, growing larger, and more varied, with a heavier emphasis on forbidden books, notably atheistic and erotic works like Système de la nature and Histoire de dom B…, portier des Chartreux, which were often favored by dealers who had fallen behind in their payments and speculated on the riskier but more profitable sector of the trade.  In November Lair traveled to Paris in order to negotiate the purchase of his certificate as a marchand libraire.  He arrived in time to witness the ceremonial installation of the old Parlement de Paris, which replaced the court established by the Maupeou reforms.  Unfortunately for him, however, the reversion to the previous judicial system meant that Blois would lose its own Maupeou court and that he would lose the customers who came to do business with it while lodging in his boarding house.

Lair’s affairs took a downward turn in 1775.  One of his notes was protested in June, and in November the STN wrote a draft directly on him because his account had fallen badly into the red.  (The draft was a “traite,” also known as a “billet à vue”—that is, a note that was supposed to be paid upon presentation to the debtor but that he could legally reject because, unlike a promissory note or a bill of exchange, it did not carry his signature.)  Apparently he refused to acquit it (some of the correspondence may be missing at this point), and his deficit continued to grow in 1776 and 1777, when the STN sent two more drafts, which also went unpaid.  In July, 1777 it announced that it had run out of patience.  It sent him an account statement with a draft on him for 873 livres, threatening prosecution if he failed to pay it.  He tried to parry the blow with a remittance for 400 livres as a down payment, which the STN credited to his account while insisting on its determination to recover the rest of his debt.  He had abused their indulgence, it wrote.  It would not accept any more of his notes, which invariably bounced, and it was ready to take him to court.  Lair replied in February 1778 with a litany of excuses: credit was tight; his last harvest had been terrible; and he had been forced to devote all his cash to the dowry of his daughter, who was about to get married.  Instead of paying the balance of his account, which the STN set at 486 livres, 4 sous, he sent three notes for a total of 300 livres and maturity dates that extended far into 1779.

The STN refused to be mollified, dismissing his constant lamentations about his harvests with the observation that the vineyards in Neuchâtel had also suffered and that the payment of debts should not be determined by the weather.  It returned his notes and ordered Batilliot, a Parisian bill collector who specialized in bad debts in the book trade, to collect the balance or initiate a law suit.  Lair pleaded for clemency in a letter of March 7, 1778.  He had not meant to dupe the STN, but he had simply run out of money.  Reluctantly, the STN extended the debt for another two months, writing two drafts on him, each for 243 livres 2 sous, which were to become due in May and June.  When May came round, sure enough, Lair failed to pay the first draft.  The STN shot off a furious letter: “Have you sworn to vex us forever?”  To justify his refusal, he had claimed that there were errors in the account statement and spoiled sheets in the books it had sent.  The STN rejected those arguments out of hand as pretexts to avoid honoring his debt.  It received a wounded reply.  At great effort, he had managed to pay the second draft, but he could do no more until mid-September, after the grape harvest, which fortunately promised to be excellent this year.  Still furious, the STN answered that it had a traveling agent who would soon arrive in Blois and force him to pay up.

It was at this point that Favarger appeared.  Having been delayed by the collapse of his horse and the negotiations to buy a new one, he did not make it to Blois until the beginning of November.  He immediately went to the poste restante to see whether the home office had sent any information about the current state of Lair’s account, but nothing had arrived.  It was therefore impossible to reach a settlement; but after bearding Lair in his boarding house cum school cum book shop, Favarger sent some good news.  Lair’s harvest had indeed been excellent, and he promised firmly to send a payment soon.  He acknowledged that he had deserved to lose the STN’s trust, yet he made a favorable impression on Favarger: “He is reputed to be a respectable man who has some assets, but three or four bad deals and as many bad harvests have made it impossible for him to honor part of his business affairs.”

A few days later, Lair sent the STN a note for 180 livres, claiming it should balance his account.  The STN accepted it, although it would not mature for another four months.  But it continued to berate him about his refusal to pay what it considered to be the remnant of his debt so that they could finally close the account.  It would not countenance any more excuses: “It’s not the good or small harvests that should stand in the way of a settlement.” 

The STN did not hear from him again.  On June 2, 1782, Lair’s wife wrote that he had just died.  The STN continued to try to settle the account, but widow Lair did not know what to make of its demands, because according to one of its reports she owed 110 livres 8 sous, and according to another she owed to 374 livres 8 sous.  In January 1785, she acknowledged a debt of 352 livres 8 sous and sent a note for 109 livres 6 sous as an installment, asking the STN to be indulgent about its far-off date of maturity: “But I beg you to consider the situation of a widow with children from two marriages whose husband has left her with some very messy affairs.”  The STN replied that it would accept her note as a final settlement, “considering the circumstances in which you find yourself and which assuredly have a claim on our sympathy.”    

Hopes for striking it rich, overextended orders, bounced promissory notes, recriminations, excuses, negotiations, a settlement, and at the end a widow who took over the business, trying to extract it from “messy affairs”—it is a story like many others in the papers of the STN, although each one has its own, peculiar character.