A Literary Tour de France

Abraham Fontanel was a survivor.  In a trade where many dealers went under, he maintained a small business at the margin of the mainstream—quite a feat in Marseille, where the competition was particularly fierce, and the most powerful bookseller, Isaac-Pierre Rigaud, squeezed out one retailer after another in the 1770s and 1780s (see the essay on Rigaud in this website).

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            The STN first heard from Fontanel in August 1772, when he was planning to establish a cabinet littéraire or commercial lending library in Mende, far off in the upper Lot Valley at the edge of the Cévennes Mountains in Languedoc-Roussillon.  That was Protestant territory, and Fontanel had received a copy of the STN’s catalogue from one of its Huguenot contacts, Jean-François Malherbe, a bookseller in Loudun (see the essay on him in this website).  Fontanel had no experience of the book trade.  He had been trained as an artist and engraver.  But he thought he could set up a bookshop that would double as a cabinet littéraire stocked by cheap, Swiss, pirated editions.  He offered to buy two copies of every book in the STN’s catalogue, so that he could sell one and rent out the other. After studying the catalogue, he sent an order in September for 23 works, mostly on medicine, agronomy, and natural history.  A month later, he informed the STN that he had moved to Montpellier, where he expected to obtain a “brevet de libraire,” which would permit him to operate as a bookseller.  The shipment of his first order reached him there at the end of November.  Although he found the transport costs heavy, he was satisfied enough to order more, and he especially asked for books on medicine and surgery, which sold well in Montpellier, thanks to the city’s medical school. 

By May, 1773, Fontanel had established a small bookshop and had learned that ordering books from Switzerland was not a simple affair.  Shipments took too long, the middlemen charged too much, and the merchandise frequently arrived in damaged condition.  Moreover, the book binders in Montpellier had turned against him, because they all sold books on the side, although prohibited from doing so, and they wanted to stifle competition.  They refused to fold and stitch the books that he received in bales of loose sheets from Neuchâtel.  Therefore, he asked the STN to supply everything folded, stitched, and delivered at its expense all the way to his shop.  Under those conditions, he could do a large business, he assured it.  He would order a thousand livres’ worth of books, and he would take full advantage of the market in Montpellier, “où les nouveautés et surtout les ouvrages [philosophiques] vont assez bien.”  The latter, as he specified in his next order, included “6 Système de la nature, 6  Colporteur par Chevrier, 6 De l’Esprit par Helvétius, et aussi 2 ou 3 exemplaires de chaque oeuvre dans ce genre…. »   

The STN could not accept such conditions, but in May 1773 it had subscribed to a smuggling or “insurance” service, which guaranteed to get its shipments across the border for 16 percent of their value and to pay compensation if any were confiscated.  It offered to pay 4 percent of that charge and to cover shipping as far as Chalon or Bourg-en-Bresse.  Fontanel countered with a demand that the STN assume all costs and risks to Lyon.  The negotiations stalled at that point and did not resume until January, 1775, when Fontanel completed payment for his first orders, and the STN agreed to pay half the shipping costs to Lyon.  He sent a large order in March, noting that he especially wanted “…des livres que vous appelez philosophiques et qui sont ordinairement ceux qui se vendent le mieux.”  He later decided to procure those forbidden books from François Grasset, a publisher-wholesaler in Lausanne, who sometimes undersold the STN.  But Fontanel drew a good deal of his stock from Neuchâtel, judging from a large order that he sent in December.  It included a wide variety of books, from history and travel literature to fiction and belles-lettres.  “J’ai ouvert depuis peu un cabinet littéraire par abonnement, ce qui me met dans le cas de vous commettre une certaine quantité de bons romans et autres ouvrages de littérature, » he explained.   

Fontanel’s cabinet littéraire seems to have been the heart of his business.  It attracted customers to his shop, and he used his stock for lending books as well as selling them.  He also developed a sideline in prints and drawings.  When Favarger assessed the shop in 1778, he noted, “Fontanel est médiocre.  Son commerce est plutôt en portraits et dessins que librairie. »  Fontanel relied on these supplementary activities in order to survive in the early 1780s, when the book trade went into decline and the other booksellers did everything possible to undercut him.  Driven, as he saw it, by an “excès de jalousie,” they delayed shipments for him in the chambre syndicale, removed catalogues from the bales, and reinforced the boycott of the binders.  Isaac-Pierre Rigaud was especially hostile, although he concentrated on eliminating more substantial competitors such as Cézary [see the essay on Rigaud on this website].  By March 1781 Cézary had gone bankrupt and was trapped in debtors’ prison while his creditors seized his stock.  These were hard times, Fontanel wrote to the STN.  Yet his own business had held up.  Having acquired a brevet de libraire, he now figured as an official bookseller in the Almanach de la librairie, and he imagined occupying a bigger place in the trade : “Ma librairie va s’étendre, attendu que je me vois seul avec M. Rigaud ici, les autres ne paraissant pas continuer—ce qui excite diablement la jalousie du sieur Rigaud, qui voudrait être seul et qui me témoigne sa haine journellement. »   

In August, 1781, however, Fontanel failed to acquit a money order for 660 livres, and he still could not come up with any cash in November, when he fell severely ill during a business trip to Bordeaux.  His wife, who had been minding the shop in Montpellier, came to nurse him, and the STN agreed to extend his debt while he recovered.  Back on his feet in Montpellier, he regained control of his finances and continued ordering books.  In May 1782 he reported that his situation looked promising.  He had helped create an academy of painting and sculpture, and the province had rewarded him with a pension and the “titre d’associé honoraire et garde des desseins, ce qui me fait aller avec un peu plus d’aisance.”  His orders showed that he was stocking his shop with a wide variety of literature, including new editions of Rousseau’s works, which he was especially eager to procure.  By the end of 1782, he had honored all the payments that had become due in his account with the STN.  Then, again, the wheel of fortune turned against him.

It is difficult to determine what went wrong, because none of Fontanel’s letters from 1783 have survived.  Like many marginal retailers, he probably ordered more books than he could sell and never had enough cash on hand to redeem promissory notes when they became due.  In June, 1784, the STN engaged a firm in Montpellier, Vialars, père, fils et Thouron, to collect the debt that Fontanel had accumulated: 1,216 livres, a hefty sum for a small bookseller.  Vialars negotiated a repayment scheme, but Fontanel could not keep up with it.  The problem, according to Vialars, was that Fontanel had over-extended himself: “Je crois qu’il entreprend beaucoup au-delà de ses forces” [Vialars to STN, August 30, 1784].  For the next two years, “à force de menaces et de solicitations,” Vialars extracted a succession of small payments [Vialars to STN, November 3, 1784].  There was no point in taking him to court, Vialars wrote, because nothing would be gained by forcing him into bankruptcy.  “Je vis qu’il n’y avait d’autre parti à prendre que celui de solliciter des à comptes et de continuer à faire beaucoup de menaces » [Vialars to STN,May 1, 1785].  When the last payment arrived, in September 1786, Fontanel still owed 218 livres [STN to Vialars, September 28, 1786].  Long before then, the STN had stopped sending him books, and he had stopped sending it orders for them.  Did he continue into the revolutionary era, cobbling together an existence by selling off his stock along with prints, paintings, and subscriptions to the cabinet littéraire?  Whatever became of him, Fontanel made a small but substantial contribution to the cultural life of Montpellier.

To take the measure of his role in the diffusion of literature, one can consult the statistics drawn from his orders for books.  They show a strong demand for the writings of Rousseau, both early editions of the complete works and the supplements to them that appeared after his death, including the Confessions.  More surprisingly, Fontanel ordered a large number of Henri IV, drame lyrique, a play by Barnabé-Farmian du Rosoi that did not attract many orders from other booksellers.  His stock included many works by Voltaire and probably all sorts of “livres philosophiques,” but as he explained in his correspondence, he preferred to purchase that genre of literature from suppliers who charged less than the STN.  As he also noted in his letters, he especially wanted medical books, the treatises of Albrecht van Haller  and Herman Boerhaave as well as the popular tracts of Samuel-Auguste-André-David Tissot: Traité d’épilepsie, De la santé des gens de lettres, L’Onanisme, and Avis au people sur sa santé.  He ordered works by classic authors such as Erasmus, Cervantes, La Fontaine, and Molière.  And he asked for a large variety of Protestant works, pedagogical tracts, histories, and novels (Les Malheurs de l’inconstance by Claude-Joseph Dorat, Epreuves du sentiment by François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d’Arnaud).