A Literary Tour de France

To all appearances, Toulouse had everything needed for a flourishing book trade—a strategic location along routes that linked the Mediterranean to the Atlantic and that spread throughout southwestern France; a commercial hub at the heart of a fertile grain region; a parlement, a large university, two academies, and many administrative and ecclesiastical institutions.  Yet the trade did not do well, or at least not as well as in comparable provincial centers such as Besançon and Rouen.   The general survey of 1764 described the city’s two dozen booksellers as “des gens sans reproche, faisant loyalement leur commerce.”   But it put them down as mediocre: “Il n’y en a aucun dont la fortune soit excessive, d’autant que ce commerce est assez borné dans cette ville.”

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          After inspecting Toulouse’s bookshops in September 1778, Favarger attributed their relative lack of prosperity to two factors: excessive severity in enforcing regulations by the local Chambre syndicale and cut-throat practices among the booksellers themselves: “Rien n’est plus rigide que cette Chambre syndicale, et ce sont les libraires eux-mêmes qui l’ont mis sur ce pied en se vendant les uns les autres par une discorde et une jalousie sans égale qui règne entre eux. »  He cited the example of a bookbinder who had collected 80-85 subscriptions to the Encyclopédie only to have them appropriated by some booksellers on the grounds that he had stepped over the boundary that separated his trade from theirs.  Business was so bad that they had to rely on the sales of cheap, pirated editions, yet they denounced one another as soon as they found evidence of piracy.  They expected the denunciations to pour into the chambre syndicale as soon as it began to apply the measures against pirated books promulgated in the edicts of August 30, 1777: “Ils craignent tous d’être attrapés ou vendus.”  And they would not tolerate the sale of Protestant works, even though Toulouse had a large population of Huguenots: “Il faut convenir que cette ville est le centre de la bigoterie.”

          Favarger reached these conclusions after interviewing nearly all of the city’s 23 booksellers and discussing their business with a local merchant named Chaurou, who assessed them from a relatively neutral point of view and agreed to represent the STN if it ran into difficulties.  Favarger also collected information from a local Huguenot named Janotty, who had studied in Neuchâtel in a school that had been run by Ostervald and his son-in-law, Jean-Elie Bertrand, before they founded the STN.  In his report to the home office, Favarger summarized his evaluation of each bookseller as if he were giving out grades—and he was a tough grader, because “médiocre” meant good enough for the STN to consider entering into business with them:

Dalles et Vitrac: “médiocres, mais ils ne feront rien à present. »

Robert : « de la même classe, mais il ne fera qu’en échange. »

Dupleix : « bien bon mais rien pour le présent. »

Saccarau et Moulas : « de même. »

Manavit : « bien bon mais rien pour le présent par rapport aux entraves. »

Bessian, Spigat, Le Clerc : « ne valent rien .»

Baour : « ne veut rien faire.  Il est médiocre. »

Darnès : « de la même classe ; de même. »

Resplandy : « médiocre aussi. »

Favarger’s top grade went to Antoine Laporte, « le coq des libraires de Toulouse et bon comme l’or. »  He also recommended François Resplandy, who cooperated with Laporte in shipping arrangements: “Ils sont bien bons amis, et ni l’un ni l’autre ne sont de la bande de ceux qui se trahissent.” 

          After a great deal of inspecting bookshops and bargaining with booksellers, Favarger concluded, “Pour une ville comme Toulouse je devrais vous envoyer des mémoires pour des milliers de francs au lieu des centaines.”  He sent in orders from Laporte and Resplandy, which provide a brief glimpse of their trade in 1778.  Laporte wanted standard works : history (William Robertson’s Histoire de l’Amérique, Claude François Xavier Millot’s Eléments d’histoire générale ancienne et modern), two novels (Jezennemours, roman dramatique by Louis Sébastien Mercier and Voltaire’s L’Ingénu), and some current non-fiction (L’Adoption ou la maçonnerie des femmes by Guillemain de Saint-Victor and Le Thévenon ou les journées de la montagne by Elie Bertrand).  None of those books would cause much trouble if the bale fell into the hands of Toulouse’s book-trade inspector, a tough lawyer, or the hostile syndics who inspected shipments in the chambre syndicale.  But Laporte was taking no chances.  The STN was to send his bale to its shipping agent and smuggler in Lyon, Jacques Revol, with instructions to repack it and forward it to Chaurou disguised as a domestic shipment of textiles—that is, in a square-shaped bale of the kind used for draperies.  Chaurou had agreed to serve as the STN’s agent in Toulouse, where he could get its shipments to the booksellers without passing through the chambre syndicale.

          Resplandy’s order was very different.  Although it contained a few standard works (La Fontaine’s Fables, Robertson’s Histoire de l’Amérique), it consisted primarily of irreligious Enlightenment tracts (Voltaire’s La Bible enfin expliquée, d’Holbach’s Système de la nature), and a great deal of pornography, much of it anticlerical (Vénus dans le cloître, Vie voluptueuse des Capucins, Le Monialisme, histoire galante).  It was to be shipped through the same underground route.  In fact, Resplandy and Laporte negotiated together with Favarger and planned to have their books included in the same bale.  That proved to be impractical, because the orders were too large; but the two clearly operated as allies—a prominent dealer, who kept to the legal or quasi-legal trade, and a smaller retailer, who did business in his shadow, selling the most dangerous works.  When a customer appeared in Laporte’s well-appointed shop and dropped remarks about certain kinds of books—“curiosa,” “livres philosophiques”—Laporte knew how to supply him.

          The shipments arranged by Favarger made it safely to Toulouse, but they took time and money.  Resplandy complained about the delay—three months, most of them spent gathering dust in Revol’s secret stockrooms—and especially the cost—69 livres in shipping charges for merchandise that cost 656 livres.  In a letter of January 2, 1779, he expressed eagerness to do more business with the STN.  He found its catalogue full of “de très bons articles,” and he felt optimistic about overcoming the hostility of the other booksellers, because his friend Laporte had been chosen as syndic when the local guild was reorganized in accordance with the edicts of August 30, 1777.  But he had difficulties in paying promissory notes, owing to the lack of specie among the money changers of Lyon and Paris.  Therefore, he proposed doing some of their trade in exchanges.  To inform the STN of what he could swap from his stock, he listed the following titles and the prices at which he evaluated them:

La Raison par alphabet de Voltaire, 2 vol………………..3 livres.

D. B…re, portier des Chartrerux, 2 vol., figures………...5 l.

Thérèse philosophe, 2 vol., figures………………………4 l.

Vie et lettres de Ninon de Lenclos, 3 parties.…………24 sous

Voix de la nature, 5 parties………………….…………30 s.

Lettres de Mme de Pompadour, 2 vol…………………20 s.

Anecdotes de Mme du Barry, 2 vol. avec le portrait….40 s.

Mémoires de l’abbé Terray, 2 vol……………………..40 s.

The STN had no interest in exchanging books with a marginal dealer located so far away that the shipping costs would be prohibitive.  Moreover, it already had in stock the books that Resplandy proposed.  Instead of printing such highly illegal works on its own presses, it procured them by means of exchanges with nearby publishers such as Jacques-Benjamin Téron and Jean-Samuel Cailler of Geneva, who specialized in the genre.  Resplandy’s correspondence confirmed that this kind of forbidden literature circulated widely in France, but it did not open up opportunities for sustained trade with the STN.

          The STN faced similar difficulties in dealing with the other booksellers from Toulouse.  Laporte never followed up his first order with another one, presumably because he found the shipment too slow and expensive.  Dupleix refused to trade unless the STN agreed to supplement sales with exchanges.  Sacarau and Moulas also wanted to do some swapping.  In a letter of September 2, 1777, they explained that they had recently merged their businesses and that they disposed of a large stock.  The catalogue that accompanied their letter contained 125 titles, many of them works by Enlightenment philosophes—Montesquieu, Helvétius, Rousseau, and especially Voltaire—and a wide variety of others, including some Protestant and Jansenist books.  But the STN wanted to sell books, not to exchange them.  Forest, another important dealer with a large stock, had tried without success to establish relations in 1772.  He drove a hard bargain, insisting that the STN pay for all the shipping costs and accept as payment bills of exchange that would not mature for eighteen months or two years.  The STN would not accept those terms, and Forest would not modify them.  Moreover, he claimed that he could get some of the books offered by the STN at the same price from his suppliers in Brussels; so he never developed a supply line from Neuchâtel.  Manavit, a more flexible but less reliable bookseller, bought a dozen copies of Raynal’s Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes from the STN in 1781, but he did not send any payment for four years, and even then he refused to pay for two copies on the pretext that they were lacking some sheets.  (Shipments often contained copies that lacked sheets or had spoiled sheets, but booksellers were expected to send notice about these “défets” upon receipt of the goods so that the printer could replace them from his stock of leftover sheets.)

          The only bookseller from Toulouse who did extensive business with the STN was Nicolas-Etienne Sens.  Favarger did not give him a very good rating in September 1778, because the firm that presented itself as “Sens et compagnie” in its business letters did not look impressive when seen up close: “Sens n’a point de compagnie que sa femme.”  Sens had succumbed to a partial bankruptcy in 1774—that is, he had suspended all payments of his bills while persuading his creditors to give him enough time to redeem his debts.  According to Favarger’s informants, he had made a fairly successful recovery, but the STN should not sell him anything unless it received payment in cash.

          Sens had first contacted the STN in October 1776.  For testimony as to his soundness, he said the STN could contact several booksellers in Lyon and his father-in-law, Michel Gaude, an important dealer in Nîmes.  The book trade had gone into such a slump recently that he had supplemented his normal business with a sideline in second-hand books, which he purchased at sales of private libraries.  Yet he foresaw promising opportunities for trading with the STN, if it could cover all expenses and risks for its shipments as far as Lyon.   After receiving a favorable reply, he wrote that he was especially eager to purchase “tous les ouvrages philosophiques et gaillards que vous pouvez nous fournir.”  He also wanted to exchange books, and as an example of what he kept in stock he offered 100-200 copies of Voltaire’s Lettres philosophiques and 100-200 of the pornographic best-seller, Thérèse philosophe.

          The STN replied that it would not be drawn into exchanges over such a great distance, and it sent a list of the “livres philosophiques” that it could sell.  As a consequence, Sens’s first order contained a large proportion of highly illegal works.  He also asked to stagger his payments in promissory notes that would become due over a period of 18 to 21 months—an unusual arrangement, which he justified by explaining that he had to extend long-term credit to his own customers, “…ce pays n’étant pas fort riche.”  Having experienced great difficulties in collecting bills from small provincial dealers who specialized in forbidden books, the STN had learned to be cautious when it received letters with that kind of language.  Therefore, it replied that Sens would have to have his notes (ordinary billets à ordre, carrying his signature and made payable to the bearer) guaranteed by the counter-signature of a well-established bookseller, such as Gaude.  

In that case, Sens answered, adopting a miffed tone, he would cancel his order: “Nous avons réfléchi sur les inconvénients qu’il y a à vendre certains ouvrages philosophiques et autres de cette nature, ce qui nous a fait changer de sentiment à cet égard et à n’en point nous en charger, d’autant que notre façon y répugnait beaucoup. »  Furthermore, he added, he could procure nearly all of the STN’s books from other suppliers.  But the books had been shipped five weeks before he threatened to cancel the deal.  In the end, therefore, he agreed to honor his order, and he assuaged the STN’s worries by offering to pay for it in cash—with a 6 percent discount, as was usual in cash transactions.

          This response mollified the STN, which continued to supply Sens, who, in turn, continued to try to persuade it to enter into exchanges.  He was particularly eager to get rid of his excessive supply of Thérèse philosophe and the Lettres philosophiques.  He had 500-600 copies of each in stock, having ordered them, in all likelihood, from suppliers in Lyon or Avignon.  In a letter from Lyon dated November 4, 1777, he said that he had just arrived from Paris and soon would leave for Avignon on a trip to replenish his stock.  While in Paris, he learned that the government’s controversial edicts on the book trade of August 30, 1777 would go into effect sometime in the near future.  They reorganized the network of chambres syndicales, provided new measures against piracy, and permitted booksellers to sell off their stock of pirated works for a limited period, provided the books received a stamp from local authorities.  Sens suggested that the STN sell him a large number of its pirated editions so that he could take advantage of this window of opportunity before the trade became subjected to more rigorous policing.

          Although this arrangement never worked out, the STN fell back on its smuggling operation in Lyon, and Sens relied on protection by his ally, Laporte, after Laporte took up his duties as the syndic of the reorganized chambre syndicale.  By September 1778, Favarger calculated that conditions were favorable enough for the STN to continue its trade with Sens.  But shipping remained difficult.  A bale that the STN sent off in June 1777 did not arrive until December, and in 1779 Sens finally abandoned his attempts to draw supplies from Neuchâtel.   

          Because they extended over a brief period of time and did not involve a large number of books, Sens’s orders give only a limited picture of his trade.  He certainly dealt heavily in illegal literature—the works of Voltaire, erotic libertine novels like Thérèse philosophe, and the polemical tracts of Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet (Essai philosophique sur le monialisme, Lettre de M. Linguet à M. le comte de Vergennes).  The books he ordered in large number also included some novels (Jezennemours by Louis-Sébastien Mercier and Les Sacrifices de l’amour by Claude-Joseph Dorat), along with some travel literature (Voyage en Sicile et en Malte by Patrick Brydone) and works for Protestants (editions of the Psalms). 

          In looking back over the relations of the STN with Sens and the other booksellers in Toulouse, one has a sense of missed opportunities.  There was plenty of demand for a wide variety of books, especially cheap pirated editions, but it was stifled by quarrels among the booksellers and, above all, by the difficulties of doing business over a large distance.  Aside from the hazards of smuggling, the bottleneck in Lyon, and the shipping costs, the publisher-wholesaler had to develop “confiance” in his clients.  How could the STN know whether to trust retailers whom it had never seen?  It relied on contacts among local merchants and the occasional visit by a sales rep such as Favarger.  But it often had to make judgments based on the scanty information that it received through the mail.

          A final dossier from Toulouse, that of “Bergès et Cie.”, illustrates this dilemma.  In a letter dated May 26, 1781, Bergès said that he had not heard from the STN in a long time.  He was pleased to inform it that he had just acquired the stock of theatrical works of Veuve Calamy in Bordeaux.  As an enclosed sample half-page demonstrated, the quality of the printing and paper was splendid.  Bergès would part with these books at a lump price of 30 livres per hundredweight in bales delivered free of charges as far as Lyon.  He also offered to exchange books and sent a catalogue of those he could make available—medical works, school books, science treatises, and a great deal of forbidden literature such as La Raison par alphabet by Voltaire and Dom B….., portier des Chartreux.  If the STN preferred to purchase them, he would give it a discount of 5 percent on the prices listed after the titles and a year’s credit for making the payment.

          The STN indicated a willingness to enter into negotiations and sent a copy of its own catalogue.  Bergès replied with a large order: 30 titles of works by popular authors (Mercier, Dorat, Mme Riccoboni, Mme de Genlis) worth a total of 864 livres.  He also demonstrated a great deal of professional savvy about what was selling and what was available from other suppliers.  For example, he noted that Nouffer of Geneva had offered his edition of Raynal’s Histoire philosophique for only 24 livres, the atlas included, with a 25 percent discount and a free copy for every dozen ordered.  Bergès had ordered 50 copies—and he would not take any of the STN’s edition of Necker’s Mémoire sur les administrations provinciales [ch], because “On l’a imprimé ici aux environs, et Toulouse en fourmille.”  He did a large business in Bordeaux as well as Toulouse, he explained in a letter of July 23, 1781:

 “Nous faisons beaucoup d’affaires avec nombre de vos voisins, et il ne tiendra pas à nous que nous n’en fassions avec vous si vous voulez être coulant.  Nous venons de réimprimer notre catalogue, et nous y avons mis quelques-uns de vos livres, ainsi que vous le verrez par celui que notre commis—qui doit aller dans vos cantons le mois prochain et qui est actuellement à Paris—vous remettra.

          In acknowledging Bergès’s order, the STN asked him to excuse a delay, because it took time to assemble everything.  Meanwhile, it wrote to Chaurou, the merchant in Toulouse who provided information about the solvency of the local booksellers: Could the STN extend its “confiance” to Bergès and if so, up to what sum of money?  Chaurou replied that the business did not exist.  Bergès had been a clerk of Sacareau et Moulas, where he learned the tricks of the trade.  Then he had tried to lure publishers into sending him books, which he intended to sell on the sly.  He had been discovered and was currently in hiding: “Ce jeune homme n’a rien dans le monde, et s’il venait à être pris, il y aurait à craindre que vous n’auriez pas un sol de ce que vous lui confieriez. »

          It was a good try.  Bergès had perfectly mastered the style of business letters, down to the all-important “signature” of the owner of the business (always different from the formal handwriting of the clerk who drafted the letter) at the end.  He had accurate information about the current prices of books.  He knew how to negotiate for favorable terms and to entice a publisher-wholesaler who was anxious about selling its stock.  But everything about him was a bluff: the catalogue, the sales rep, the correspondence with other firms, and the firm itself.  Similar swindles appear elsewhere in the STN archives, some of them successful.  Selling books was a tough business in the eighteenth century—at every level, from publishers and their journeyman printers down to booksellers and their clerks.