A Literary Tour de France

          Seen from Neuchâtel, Buchet looked similar to Gaude.  He did a large business, both wholesale and retail; ordered books from many suppliers, especially in Avignon and Switzerland; published books of his own; varied his stock by means of exchanges; and dealt in the same kind of literature, above all, Protestant works.  He seemed to offer an opening to a promising market.  But suppliers could not get a clear view of clients located hundreds of miles away.  After five years of trading with Buchet, the STN discovered that he had built his house out of straw.  It collapsed in 1778, and his subsequent efforts to stave off bankruptcy illustrate the vulnerability of a seemingly eminent bookseller who overreached himself.

          Buchet first contacted the STN in 1773 at the recommendation of a smuggler-“insurer,” Guillon l’aîné, who had been lining up customers among booksellers at the fair of Beaucaire outside Nîmes.  An introduction from such a source did not bode well for business at the up-market sector of the trade, but Buchet soon was sending orders for Protestant books, and the STN welcomed the opportunity to make some profitable sales.  Had it done due diligence before sending off shipments, it would have learned that Buchet had been suspended from the trade ten years earlier for dealing in forbidden books.  He had lost 600 livres in works confiscated by the authorities.  But he managed to resume activity as a full-fledged member of the local booksellers’ corporation (communauté des libraires), and his business seemed to expand in the early 1770s.  When Favarger arrived in Nîmes in August 1778, he learned that Buchet possessed a house worth 20,000 livres and that he was expected to acquire more assets from a new wife, having recently remarried.

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          Unlike Gaude, Buchet did not bargain hard when he negotiated with the STN over the terms of its shipments.  As long as the import duty lasted, he agreed to pay half of it and half of the shipping costs from Neuchâtel to Lyon, where he had engaged Gabriel Regnault, a bookseller who collaborated regularly with smugglers, to steer his bales past inspection in the chambre syndicale and then to forward them down the Rhône.  Buchet’s first orders, which included a dash of Voltaire and Molière along with the Protestant works, were quite substantial.  They reached him without difficulty until January 1775, when a shipment was seized near Avignon.  Buchet blamed the STN for this mishap, since it had sent the bale to an incompetent shipping agent instead of to Regnault.  But by pretending that he, too, was only involved in forwarding the books, not in ordering them, he persuaded the authorities to send them back to Neuchâtel—all of them except a few strictly forbidden works such as Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry

          Buchet’s interest in the most dangerous literature became clear soon after this incident, when he proposed that the STN publish its own edition of Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry and offered to take 500 copies as an advance order.  The STN did not nibble at this bait.  It rarely printed such disreputable works, preferring to acquire them by exchanges with the publishers who did—marginal entrepreneurs such as Jean-Samuel Cailler, Gabriel Grasset, and Jacques-Benjamin Téron of Geneva.  It therefore could furnish the forbidden books, which made up a larger proportion of Buchet’s orders from mid-1774 until the spring of 1778.  On September 5, 1776, for example, he ordered 13 copies of the atheistic Le Christianisme dévoilé and 26 copies of the Nouveau Testament.  Along with a constant demand for Protestant works, his orders included a good deal of Voltaire, many subscriptions to the quarto edition of the Encyclopédie (this enormous enterprise was directed by Joseph Duplain, a bookseller in Lyon, and the STN had only a secondary role in it: see “The Encyclopédie Wars of Prerevolutionary France” in the publications available elsewhere on this website), and a few political libels, such as Mémoires de Louis XV and Mémoires de l’abbé Terray.  In a letter of January 2, 1777, Buchet announced that he had just published an edition of Les Deux matronnes ou les infidélités démasquées, a “tableau des vices des femmes” by Elie-Catherine Fréron, and L’Académie des dames, a pornographic classic (his reference to the latter was ambiguous, so he may only have stocked large numbers of it instead of publishing it himself.)  By 1778 the pattern of his orders suggested that he was taking more chances and having more difficulty in paying his bills.  In December 1777 the STN refused to accept one of his notes, which he had written on Boisserand, an underground dealer in Roanne who had recently fled to avoid debtors’ prison.  And in squaring accounts in May 1777, it found that Buchet had credited himself twice for the same transaction.  Accounting mistakes occasionally occurred in the book trade but never among the most solid booksellers such as Buchet’s competitor, Gaude, père, fils & Cie.

          The bad news arrived in a letter from Buchet dated May 4, 1778: he had suspended all payments.  His debts amounted to 30,012 livres.  He evaluated his assets at 53,026 livres, but that sum included his own, unsubstantiated assessment of the value of his stock (42,258 livres) and 10,767 in debts owed to him.  The likelihood of his collecting those debts looked dubious, especially in light of another item in his report on his financial situation: 12,412 livres that he had written off as losses from unpaid debts accumulated since he began business in 1763.  In self-defense, he attributed those losses to “la mauvaise foi de ceux avec qui j’ai été trop honnête. »  He also blamed the poor state of the local economy.  But he promised that he could restore his affairs if the STN, like his other creditors, would accept a proposal for the long-term redemption of its debt: he would pay off everything with five percent interest in installments spread out over four years.  “Exiger plus que ce que j’ai l’honneur de vous proposer ce serait exiger l’impossible ou ma perte totale et celle de votre créance.”

          Having received many such propositions from desperate debtors, the STN had learned to be tough in responding.  It did not want to open up new lines of credit to tradesmen who might go under at any time, and it feared special deals, which could take place behind its back and favor some creditors at the expense of others.  It therefore replied that it would agree to Buchet’s proposal only if he could find someone trustworthy to act as a backer, guaranteeing payment of the installments.  Impossible, Buchet answered.  Other creditors had accepted his terms.  If the STN took him to court, it could ruin him; but that would not produce the payment of his debt, whereas it could collect everything he owed, with interest, if it gave him the four-year extension.  While the STN continued to sound implacable in its letters, it entrusted Favarger to negotiate in its name as soon as he could size up the situation in Nîmes.  He arrived in the first week of August with detailed instructions: find out whether Buchet could be trusted; discover the true state of his affairs; and see if anyone reliable would provide security for the repayment of the debt. 

          Favarger made the rounds of merchants and pastors, using the letters of recommendation that he had accumulated along his route.  His report provides a good example of the bill-collecting function of the commis voyageur and of the importance of reputation in the economics of the book trade.  The most reliable firm that Favarger consulted, Montaud et compagnie, said it was difficult to make a clear judgment about Buchet.  He was very enterprising, had built up a large business, and until the current crisis had usually paid his bills on time.  His second marriage was bound to bring him a new infusion of wealth, and so, all things considered, he probably would honor his obligations.  But Rabaut de Saint-Etienne, the eminent minister who would become a leader of the Revolution in 1789, advised that the STN should not get drawn into a long-term repayment scheme.  Instead, it should collect all the cash it could as soon as it could, even if it had to write off some of the debt.    

          Armed with this information, Favarger bearded Buchet in his shop.  He learned immediately that there was no cash to be had and no guarantor to stand security for future payments.  Yet the situation did not look impossible when Buchet opened up his accounts, which seemed in good order, and his correspondence, which showed that many of his creditors—in Paris, Lyon, Avignon, and Switzerland—had accepted the four-year repayment plan.  Favarger was convinced that he had not made secret deals with any of them.  In the course of a long debate about all the possibilities of acquitting the debt, Buchet argued that it was in the STN’s interest to let him continue his business while collecting the debts owed to him and making enough through sales to repay everything he owed to it: 1,120 livres plus five percent interest.  To be sure, the total sum that he would have to redeem over the four years came to 20,000 livres.  “C’est un peu fort pour un libraire de province,” Favarger observed.  And more worrisome were rumors that Buchet was an inveterate liar and the fact that he had not told his new wife about the critical state of his finances.

          Instead of attempting to settle things on the spot, Favarger left the decision to his superiors in Neuchâtel.  They tried without success to extract better terms from Buchet and finally agreed in September 1778 to a schedule of payments that would clear his debt by the end of 1780.  Buchet resumed ordering books from the STN in February 1779.  He asked for 26 Bibles and arranged to pay for them in advance.  Although he acknowledged that he would have to win back their “confiance”—a key term used throughout the book trade—he did not stint in his praise for himself in reviewing his past behavior: “Mais quelle que fût votre confiance à mon égard, votre maison ne sera jamais dupe des douceurs et des avantages qu’elle pourrait me faire.  La franchise et la probité est la route que j’ai toujours tenue et ne la démentirai jamais” (February 12, 1779). 

          Buchet did indeed honor all the notes that he had written to clear his debt.  He supplemented his bookselling with a cabinet littéraire or book club, using his stock as a lending library; and by May 1782 he was again publishing books of his own—notably a Traité d’orthographie, which he offered to the STN in exchange for its publications.  Although it refused to engage in exchanging, it filled some large orders for Buchet during the next two years.  In February 1785, however, he failed to pay three of his notes for a debt of 355 livres.  He suspended his payments once again, and again he asked his creditors to accept a repayment plan, this time for two years.  In fact, he used the same phrasing, word for word, as in his appeal for clemency in 1778: “Exiger plus que ce que j’ai l’honneur de vous proposer ce serait exiger l’impossible ou ma perte totale et celle de votre créance” (February 20, 1785).

          Although this was a familiar refrain—and one that it had heard in various formulations from other debtors—the STN grudgingly accepted the proposal.  It had little choice, because Buchet could not come up with cash, and his creditors had nothing to gain by forcing him into outright bankruptcy.  That was the advice of a merchant in Nîmes who considered the repayment plan a “ruse” but found it impossible to collect the debt for the STN (André to STN, February 21, 1785).  Three years later, Buchet still owed money to the STN.  He finally cleared his account in April 1788 by means of a promissory note for 240 livres with another exchange arrangement, swapping his edition of the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française against the STN’s Psalms and La Nourriture de l’âme.  When the STN last heard from him, in October 1788, he was still operating out of his book shop, managing his cabinet littéraire, and publishing the occasional volume.    

          By then, however, Buchet had sunk into the second rank of booksellers.  His signature on bills of exchange no longer commanded respect.  A merchant-banker who specialized in collecting debts from booksellers had written him off and warned the STN to do the same: “Buchest est un pauvre diable qui ne peut à peine gagner de quoi vivre.  On le poursuit de tout côté, et l’on n’en retire toujours rien » (Batilliot l’aîné to STN, March 18, 1781).