A Literary Tour de France

After taking stock of Orléans’s eleven booksellers and four printers in November 1778, Favarger sent a dispatch to the STN that sounded like a report from a credit-rating agency.  Terse and unsentimental, it put them firmly in their place:

Veuve Rouzeau est bonne, mais elle ne tient que des ouvrages classiques.  Chevillon l’aîné de même.  Jacob est un de ces syndics imbus de sa charge.  Il est très porté contre les contrefaçons.  L’on ne m’a pas conseillé de le voir.  Sion n’est pas bon.  Chevillon le cadet est médiocre.  Son gendre, qu’on dit avoir du bien, travaille à rétablir son commerce….Mussot fort bon libraire nous fera passer sa commission….Perdroux, libraire, médiocre, a trouvé sur notre catalogue quelques articles de son goût.  Tous les libraires sur l’Almanach et non dans ma lettre font peu de chose et ne méritent pas grande confiance.

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Favarger consigned Couret de Villeneuve, the most eminent bookseller in Orléans, to “la classe des médiocres,” for the reasons given in the essay on Couret in this website.  That left one other bookseller, Jean-Baptiste Letourmy, an interesting character, although it is not possible to learn much about him from his dossier in the STN archives, because many of his letters are missing.  Favarger treated him with respect, having learned that he was one of three brothers who peddled books throughout the Loire Valley and that, unlike most peddlers, they could be trusted to pay their bills.
    The brothers specialized in the sale of woodblock prints and chapbooks.  From this modest beginning, their trade grew to include all kinds of books, which they marketed jointly.  Jean-Baptiste handled the orders for all three of them and ran their common business from a bookshop in the Place du Martroi in Orléans.  The other two operated out of Blois and Tours.  Each kept his own stock and developed his own network of clients in the surrounding towns and villages.  They divided the joint enterprise into three separate businesses in 1779, but Jean-Baptiste assured the STN that they continued to cooperate closely and asked that it extend its “confiance” to all three.
    None of them was mentioned in the survey of printing and the book trade conducted by the French government in 1764.  At that time, according to the report on Orléans, the local trade seemed to be wide open.  It was overrun by unauthorized dealers, the town officials had no idea of what they sold, and the police never intervened unless someone sent in a denunciation.  The government tried to gain control of the situation in 1778, when it created a chambre syndicale to inspect shipments and confiscate illegal books.  As Favarger noted, the new syndic or head of the chambre syndicale was particularly severe in the campaign against pirated works, which made up the bulk of the STN’s business.  Couret de Villeneuve sent similar reports about the syndic and considered the situation so dangerous that for a while he suspended all orders from abroad.  After readjustments in the system of smuggling, the trade revived.  But it never reached the level it had attained before 1778, when pirated and prohibited books were easily available, especially outside the city’s boundaries.  That was where the Letourmy brothers built up their business in the 1760s and 1770s, and they succeeded remarkably well.
    Unfortunately, the few surviving letters of Jean-Baptiste Letourmy reveal little about how the brothers peddled books throughout the countryside.  But the record of Jean-Baptiste’s orders and the STN’s letters to him, which it copied into its ledger of “Copies de lettres,” indicate what the brothers sold.  In contrast to Couret, they dealt heavily in illegal literature—not just pirated books but the wide variety of prohibited works that the STN referred to as “livres philosophiques.”  It built up its stock in these books through exchanges with the marginal publishers, located primarily in Geneva, who printed them.  Favarger carried a separate catalogue of them when he made the rounds of bookshops.  Unlike the STN’s printed catalogue, it was a manuscript list of titles grouped under the heading “Livres philosophiques,” and it contained no compromising information about the source of supply.  If Favarger sensed that a bookseller had a taste for such forbidden fruit, he took out the catalogue and tried to arrange a sale.  But he had to be extremely careful.  A potential client might denounce him to the police, and a few retailers refused to handle forbidden books as a matter of principle, not merely prudence.  According to the 1777 survey of printers, the widow Rouzeau in Orléans, “…porte la délicatesse dans la vente jusqu’à se reprocher de vendre des livres de théâtre. »
    Jean-Baptiste Letourmy had no such scruples. His first orders to the STN included several “livres philosophiques,” and the proportion of illegal literature increased as he piled order upon order.  In its records of its shipments (“Livres de commission”) it noted that it topped off the bales it sent to him with “nouveautés philosophiques et du temps.”  It normally shipped books in sheets, not sewn or bound, and therefore it took the precaution of “marrying” the assortments it sent to him—that is, it larded the leaves of forbidden books inside those of innocent works.  It also hired agents to bribe inspectors in certain chambres syndicales, especially in Lyon, not to look carefully when they examined bales en route to destinations like Orléans, where Letourmy received them without difficulty, thanks to agents of his own. 
    The system worked quite well, although mishaps occurred.  In December 1775 a bale for Letourmy was stopped at Frambourg on the Swiss-French border, because the customs officers, who normally permitted such shipments to pass without inspection, had received a special order to search shipments for a seditious pamphlet.  Although they did not find the pamphlet among Letourmy’s books, they confiscated 20 copies of Recueil de comédies et de quelques chansons gaillardes and 25 Mémoires de Louis XV.  Letourmy agreed to pay for half of that loss, but he suspended his orders until the STN guaranteed that it could get its bales to him as far as Lyon with no risk.  By the end of 1776 it had repaired all the damage to its route, and on February 25, 1777, he sent a particularly large order.  It contained 51 titles on a wide variety of literature, from sentimental novels and philosophical treatises to pornography along with a special request for anything the STN could procure about “l’histoire du dernier règne”—that is, scandalous accounts of politics and life at the court under Louis XV, which were best-sellers after the king’s death in 1774. 
A month later Letourmy asked for more of the same, although he noted that the book trade had taken a turn for the worse.  His main competitor, Couret de Villeneuve, was so desperate for cash that he had begun selling off his stock at ruinous prices: “Cela fait un tort considerable au commerce” (March 21, 1777).  But Letourmy continued to send large orders, and he accompanied one of them with a proposal from an anonymous “particulier” to sell a “Recueil de manuscrits, poésies libres, comiques et burlesques” for the STN to print.   The “Recueil” indicates the character of the erotic manuscripts that, like the philosophical manuscripts well known to eighteenth-century scholars, circulated through clandestine channels.  It contained 21 works, some of them running to hundreds of verses, such as “Ce qui plaît aux dames, conte en vers comiques et burlesques, de 458 vers,” and some adapted from notorious prose works, such as “Histoire abrégée de D…B….en vers comiques et burlesques de 614 vers” (March 21, 1777).  The STN did not publish such things, but the proposition and other references in Letourmy’s  letters suggest that he knew his way around the literary underground.
By compiling Letourmy’s orders, one can create a list of the “best-sellers” in his trade—that is, the books that he ordered in largest number and that can be taken to represent the demand for literature in Orléans as he understood it.  As a rule, he asked the STN to send him only a few copies of most works, presumably because he wanted to be sure of selling them to his own customers and to avoid over-stocking.  The book that stands out at the top of the list is Les Incas, ou la destruction de l’empire du Pérou by Jean-François Marmontel, which Letourmy ordered on six occasions, making a total of 118 copies.  It condemned the cruelty of the conquistadores and missionaries of the Spanish empire in America as seen from the perspective of an eminent philosophe; but despite its anticlerical message, it was never condemned by the French authorities. Letourmy purchased it on favorable terms, because he bought the relatively inexpensive pirated edition printed by the STN.  The other works that he ordered most often came from the STN’s general stock (livres d’assortiment).  A large number of them could be called pornographic, although the term is anachronistic and hardly does justice to the erotic element in eighteenth-century French literature.  Thus L’Ecole des filles, La Fille de joie, and Recueil de comédies et de quelques chansons gaillardes.  Sex was mixed liberally with political commentary in the other works near the top of the list: Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry, La Chandelle d’Arras, and Mémoires turcs avec l’histoire galante de leur séjour en France.  The list also included three works by Voltaire and two perfectly legal (but pirated) books : Essai sur les maladies des gens du monde by Samuel-Auguste-André-David Tissot and a translation of James Rutledge’s comedy, Le Bureau d’esprit.  If one studies the entire list of all the books ordered by Letourmy, one finds a little of everything, from the atheistic works of the baron d’Holbach to collections of sermons (presumably for Protestants) and popular novels.  Compared with lists of orders by other booksellers, it contains relatively little history, travel literature, and, surprisingly, not a single book by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.  Of course, Letourmy may have ordered Rousseau’s works and other kinds of books from other suppliers, but the general tenor of his trade seems clear: he concentrated on the most dangerous and most lucrative sector of the book business.
Unlike other booksellers who dealt heavily in illegal literature, Letourmy never got caught and never failed to pay his bills.  By February 1778, he had paid for 1,180 livres worth of books—a large sum for a provincial dealer.  To be sure, there were disagreements over shipments with “défets” or spoiled sheets and incomplete copies, and they sometimes developed into disputes over the balance in Letourmy’s account.  Relations also suffered from the irregular repressive measures taken by the French government.  On October 5, 1778, after the new chambre syndicale had been established in Orléans, Letourmy wrote that he was worried about a serious interruption of his trade, not just in Orléans but also in the countryside where he and his brothers peddled their wares: “Nos marchandises sont toutes visitées à leur arrivée ici.  De plus l’on nous dit qu’il y aura des inspecteurs commis par le gouvernement qui voyageront dans les provinces pour veiller aux débits des contrefaçons.”  But the STN continued to get bales to him through the service of its most skilled agent in Lyon, Jacques Revol.  Their trade tapered off in 1780 and ceased altogether in the following years, probably because financial difficulties forced the STN to withdraw from the riskier branches of its business but also owing to a dispute over a shipment worth 348 livres.  Letourmy claimed that he had never received it and therefore refused to honor a note (billet à ordre) that the STN wrote on him.  He seems to have been in the right, because a local merchant sent by the STN to collect on the note gave him a clean bill of health: “Ce particulier qui dans l’origine n’avait presque rien a monté sa fortune depuis environ 10 ans au point de lui permettre de faire quelques entreprises assez conséquentes, qui lui réussissent à souhait, de sorte que nous le regardons maintenant comme très solide” (Veuve Chassaing et Paupaille le jeune to STN, July 12, 1784).  
In short, Letourmy’s career was a success story—a rare case of a peddler who rose into the upper ranks of the established booksellers in contrast to his main competitor, Couret de Villeneuve, who began with every possible advantage and ended in virtual bankruptcy.