Letters from Armorica, 11 Juillet 33 AF

Dear Aunt Maggie,

The highlight of this past week was an opportunity to dine with M. Fournier, the proprietor of the bookshop that I walk by on my way to and from Suprenant et Fils. As I had told Mum, I am diligently saving my pennies; my one luxury these days is my weekly book, which I buy from M. Fournier. I must choose carefully, given my limited budget, so I have been spending a not inconsiderable amount of time in M. Fournier's shop, browsing and talking with the proprietor. I stopped in on my way home several days ago, and while we were speaking he invited me to dine with him at noon the next day. (We take the main meal at midday here in Mont-Havre.)

You are, perhaps, surprised by the presence of a bookshop in such a rustic place as Mont-Havre; but consider, the colony is now well-established, and Mont-Havre is the center of what little civilization we possess here in Armorica. The townsfolk (for Mont-Havre is little more than a large town by Cumbrian standards) are prosperous and hard-working, and need their entertainments of an evening; and as most of the leading families came from Provençe before the Troubles they feel they have a duty to uphold Provençese high culture. Thus, we have a theater, and an opera house, and if it is all rather pretentious by the standards of Yorke it is nevertheless well-meant…and thoroughly enjoyed.

But such nights out are the exception, not the rule; and then, the leading merchants and guild-masters of the town are concerned to appear cultured and well-read, at least by local standards. That requires books, and M. Fournier is one of those who cater to this need. He was so good as to explain all of this to me over dinner, which we ate in his rooms over his shop.

It seems there are two kinds of book-buyer in Mont-Havre: those who buy books singly, like me, and those who buy in bulk. Which is to say, those who read, and those who wish to appear well-read while actually decorating their fine new homes with rows of volumes bound in fine leather. I ought not to disparage them, though, for they do read their books. At least, some of them do read at least some of their books.

M. Harte serves the former group, mostly with poorly written and cheaply bound novels my father would (rightly) dismiss as penny-dreadfuls, while M. Fournier serves the latter. As such, his stock consists primarily of the Provençese classics; and as such, he gets very few people coming in to browse. Instead, the well-to-do contract with him to provide them with a steady stream of books in fine, matching bindings; for not even the well-to-do of Mont-Havre can afford to buy an entire library at once. Thus, the quest for status and the appearance of culture provides M. Fournier with a steady, if boring, means of making his living.

I gather my visits are a welcome relief, the more so as he entered the business from a love of those very same classics. He did not, so he told me, intend to become a dealer in home furnishings! No, no, no! But so it is; man proposes, and le bon Dieu disposes.

During the meal we spoke of the book I was currently reading, Montpelier's Gaston du Monde; and after we had eaten, he explained why he had asked me to dine with him, mixing business with pleasure in the typical Armorican way. He had several reasons: the pleasure of my company and the opportunity to practice his Cumbrian first among them; for we speak in Cumbrian and Provençese by turns, for our mutual benefit. But then he came to the point.

"You, M. Tuppenny, are a young man of the most educated," he said. "It is incroyable that you are here in Mont-Havre; but that will be to my great benefit, I think. For I feel sure that you are as well read in the literature of your homeland as I am in mine."

"I can not go that far," I said. "You have many years of advantage on me. But yes, I have always read widely."

"I wish you to advise me, M. Tuppenny. My stock, it is Provençese. M. Harte's stock, the same. And yet most of our newest colonists are Cumbrian. True, they mostly go to the provinces, but that will change. You yourself are a sign of this."

I nodded. "I am something of a special case, I think, M. Fournier. But I have observed the same thing. You wish, then, to expand your stock to include works in Cumbrian."

"Exactement! You have it, my young friend. I wish to sell Cumbrian books, the best Cumbrian books. It is the future, n'est-ce pas? Moreover, I wish to get, as you would say, the jump on M. Harte. But I have no contacts in Yorke, nor am I myself familiar with the literature of your homeland."

At that point it was necessary for me to return to work at Suprenant et Fils, and so we adjourned the discussion for another day. In the meantime, would you ask Uncle George to discover for me the directions of the principle booksellers in Yorke?

My best love to Mum!

Your loving nephew,

Armand

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