A Literary Tour de France

          When Favarger arrived in Bordeaux at the beginning of October 1778, his gaze took in an impressive urban scene: a port flanked by the magnificent crescent of Ange-Jacques Gabriel’s Place de la Bourse, completed only three years earlier; Victor Louis’s Grand Théâtre still under construction; superb quais lined with palaces; avenues, squares, and town houses, about 5,000 of them erected since 1700,—all proclaiming the new wealth of the fourth largest city in the kingdom.  But Favarger had no eye for architecture.  Never in his letters does he mention a historical monument, a view, or any of the attractions in France’s provincial capitals that make them such a treat for visitors today.  Favarger arrived on business, and he immediately set to work inspecting bookshops and sizing up booksellers.

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          As always, he sorted the booksellers into three categories: the “bons,” who could be trusted to pay for large shipments; the “médiocres,” who merited a limited degree of “confiance”; and the rest, who were to be avoided.  He immediately eliminated four “pas bons,” along with a binder and a paper merchant who should not have been listed in the Almanach de la librairie. Of the remaining nine, most did not want to commit themselves to any transactions until they had a clear idea of how the reform edicts of August 30, 1777 would be applied, because the reforms threatened to disrupt the trade in pirated books, the STN’s bread and butter.  Only one dealer, Bergeret, agreed to make an order.  Favarger copied it into his letter: 19 titles, including the plays of Molière, the novels of Claude-Joseph Dorat, the Histoire de l’Amérique of William [ch] Robertson, and a variety of non-fiction works, none of them illegal.  But Bergeret insisted on receiving one free copy for every six that he purchased instead of one for every dozen, and therefore Favarger doubted that the directors of the STN would agree to the deal.   He turned up a perfume merchant named Roques, who was willing to sell Protestant works on the sly, but there was no getting around it: Bordeaux was a disappointment; the American war had disrupted its trade, and “tout en général est dans un calme affreux.”

          In fact, the hard times had begun several years before the outbreak of the American Revolution.  In January 1774, Chappuis frères, one of the “médiocres,” informed the STN that they needed an extra two years to pay for a shipment.  The book market was glutted, they explained, and they complained bitterly about “la dureté du présent temps et le peu de consommation qui en résulte pour nous, ne connaissant point enfin de commerce plus désagréable et plus ingrat que celui de la librairie » (letter of January 22, 1774).  They declared bankruptcy nine months later, although they eventually resumed business by negotiating an agreement with their creditors.

          Despite appearances, therefore, Bordeaux—with a parlement, an intendancy, a university, an academy, a garrison, and the largest port on the Atlantic—did not become an important outlet for the STN.  Nevertheless, the Neuchâtelois maintained commercial relations with Guillaume Bergeret, one of the most important booksellers in the city, for twelve years, and his correspondence provides an indication of the local demand for books.

          Bergeret’s letters show that he was a veteran of the trade.  He drew supplies from many publisher-wholesalers and played them off against each other, because, as he noted, the same books could be procured from many different sources.  In dealing with the STN, he bargained for the cheapest possible prices, but the savings were offset by the shipping costs.  In fact, shipping—the routes, arrangements, delays, and expenses—was the main theme that ran through his letters and the replies from the STN.

          Bergeret tested the STN’s services by a small order that he sent “pour essai” on June 22, 1773.He made a selection of titles from the STN’s current catalogue, noting to his regret that it was lacking in “articles philosophiques”—that is, forbidden books.  At that time, the French government had put a duty of 28 livres per hundredweight on all imports of books.  Bergeret was willing to pay an “insurance” charge of 12 percent in order to avoid the duty by having the books smuggled across the border.  But the STN had run into difficulties with its main smuggler, Guillon l’aîné (see his correspondence elsewhere on this website), and therefore recommended the Geneva-Turin-Nice route, which would work well, at a charge of 16 livres per hundredweight, provided Bergeret had a reliable agent in Nice.  It included in its reply a manuscript catalogue of the « livres philosophiques” that it kept in stock. 

          Although as it turned out Bergeret did not specialize in forbidden books, the catalogue whetted his appetite for them; and he asked the STN to add several copies of Théologie portative, Thérèse philosophe, and similar works to the bale it was preparing.  He would pay for the shipping but not the smuggling.  The STN answered that it had opened up a route through Lyon, where it had hired a new agent to get its books past inspection in the chambre syndicale.  Everything looked promising, except the problem of pricing.  Bergeret was not willing to pay what the STN charged for illegal literature, but it refused to reduce its prices for reasons it explained at some length:

Nous remarquons aussi que parmi les articles que vous nous commettez il s’en trouve plusieurs du genre que l’on appelle philosophique que nous ne tenons point mais que nous pouvons fournir à l’aide de nos correspondants.  A cet égard, nous devons vous prévenir que ces livres se vendent plus cher que les autres par des raisons aisées à découvrir et que nous ne pourrions vous céder au même prix que ceux qui composent notre catalogue, parce qu’on nous les vend à nous-mêmes plus chers.  Nous chercherons cependant à vous les procurer au meilleur prix que possible.  Les livres de cette espèce se multiplient autour de nous.  Voici les titres de quelques-uns tout nouveaux et qui vous sont peut-être inconnus : Système social, frère cadet du Système de la nature, Le Bon sens, La Politique naturelle, l’Ami des français.  Comme nous ne les avons point là, nous ne saurions les apprécier, mais tous font beaucoup de bruit et se vendent chers.

          They reached an agreement.  The STN sent off the bale in September 1773, and it arrived successfully via the Lyon route.  Bergeret paid for it on time and without squabbling, unlike the marginal and “médiocre” dealers, who often found pretexts (spoiled sheets, delays, high shipping charges) to avoid paying the full cost.  In February 1775, he sent another large order: 60 titles of which 11 were “livres philosophiques.”  He placed an “x” next to the titles of the latter, all of them best-sellers in the underground trade, and explained: “Vous voudrez bien marier ces articles x dans les autres.”  Marrying books was a technique of larding the sheets of illegal works inside those of innocent ones so that nothing would be confiscated when the bales were inspected in chambres syndicales.  Most inspections occurred in Lyon, where the STN’s agents made sure that they were done with a suitable degree of superficiality.

This shipment made it safely, although with a delay of more than two months.  Bergeret grumbled about the slow service and some of the STN’s prices, but he appreciated the quality of its printing.  In fact, he commissioned it to print a pirated edition of a manual about spelling and reading, which he planned to sell as a speculation of his own.  But relations began to sour during the summer of 1775.  In April, Bergeret ordered 30 copies of a radical political tract, Journal historique de la révolution opérée dans la constitution de la monarchie française par M. de Maupeou, chancelier de France, volumes 1-3.  The STN did not get them to him until late June, and it took even longer to provide him with volumes 4-5, because, unknown to Bergeret, it got its own stock from a dealer in Lyon, who favored his French clients.  Bergeret complained that his competitors, who were supplied directly from Lyon, received those volumes three months before he did.  The delays could cost him customers, he warned in October, and he might have to take his own custom elsewhere: “Il faudra nécessairement et malgré moi que je renonce entièrement à vous demander dorénavant de vos articles.  Il y aura le 20 du courant 3 mois que vous m’avez donné avis d’un envoi que je ne vois point arriver.  Vous devez naturellement jugez que je ne peux travailler ainsi. »

The STN apologized and patched up its Lyon operation as well as it could, but it never regained a large share of Bergeret’s business.  It sent him a few shipments in 1776 and 1777; then in 1778 it failed to supply him on time with 50 copies of William Robertson’s four-volume Histoire de l’Amérique, a best-seller, owing in large part to the interest in the American Revolution.  Editions from Paris and Rouen reached Bordeaux long before the STN could get its relatively cheap contrefaçon as far as Lyon.  Therefore, Bergeret canceled the purchase and sent another scolding: “Vous savez que si on ne reçoit pas les nouveautés dans leur primeur, elles restent ordinairement en magasin.”  Nonetheless, he ordered a dozen of Robertson’s history when Favarger called on him in October 1778.  Interest in America had not declined, although the war had a disastrous general effect on Bordeaux’s commerce: “Les affaires vont si doucement et si mal par rapport à la guerre que tous les genres de commerce sont tombés dans cette ville.  Aussi m’en tiens-je à des petits assortiments” 

Bergeret continued for the next six years to place orders whenever he sensed that new works offered by the STN would appeal to his customers.  In 1781, he ordered 25 copies of Mercier’s Tableau de Paris.  In 1782, he wanted 100 copies of Mercier’s Portraits des rois de France but canceled the order when the STN ran into problems getting its bales across the border.  In 1784, he ordered a dozen copies of the STN’s ten-volume edition of Raynal’s Histoire philosophique.  But the trade that had looked so promising in 1773 never developed to the extent that both sides desired.  Supply and demand were separated by too much distance and too many obstacles created by border patrols and chambres syndicales.     

          Still, Bergeret’s orders provide an indication of the literature most in demand in what probably was the most important bookshop in Bordeaux.  Despite his interest in “livres philosophiques,” Bergeret did not deal heavily in highly illegal books.  He favored pedagogical and utilitarian works such as Pierre Restaut’s Abrégé des principes de la grammaire française, Tissot’s Avis au people sur sa santé, and (not surprisingly for Bordeaux) L’Art de faire le vin by Maupin, a prolific writer on viticulture.  Bergeret ordered a great many books for children: Les Hochets moraux, ou contes pour la première enfance by M. Monget and an anonymous anthology, Lectures pour les enfants, ou choix de petits contes égalemment propres à les amuser et à leur faire aimer la vertu.  His orders included a large number of history and travel books along with popular works that pretended to reveal secrets about free masonry (Abrégé de l’histoire de la franche-maçonnerie by J.J. le François de Lalande) and magic (L’Albert moderne, ou recueil de secrets éprouvés et licites by P.-A. Alletz).  Although his letters showed interest in the works of Voltaire and Raynal, Bergeret did not order many treatises by Enlightenment philosophers.  The author who stands out above all others in his orders is L.S. Mercier, but Mercier’s prominence can be explained, at least in part, by the fact that the STN featured his works in its catalogues and printed many of them on its own presses.  The statistics drawn from the orders also show a large demand for the libels and tracts related to the political crisis during the last years of Louis XV’s reign, notably the Anecdotes sur Mme la comtesse du Barry.  Taken as a whole, Bergeret’s orders suggest a demand for a wide variety of literature—some of it spicy but most of it similar to the ordinary fare in “assortiments” that filled the shelves of other large provincial bookshops.