51. On the beach road
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
The chemin des Grands Sables still runs along the coast; it’s been changed by time and tourism to a boulevard. Just past the site of Marie Henry’s inn, a left turn will take you towards the port of Le Pouldu, where M. Goulven used to ferry people across the river; follow the boulevard to the right and you’ll be on the boulevard des Plages, Beach Boulevard. There’s a tourism office, a playground, a crêperie, and lots of holiday bungalows.
Photos from the turn of the century show only a few buildings near the coast: a couple of hotels, the customs house, a few farms with their sheds and houses. The tracks of farm wagons trace the sand.
Click through digitized postcards on the website of the departmental archives for Finistère and you can see the area change from a place to cross the river or harvest kelp to a tourist site. First one hotel appears on the bluffs, then another, and by the early 1900s there are beach cabanas lining the shore.
When Marie Henry built her inn in the late 1880s, she was thinking less of tourists and more of locals. Her land was on the road that anyone took who was visiting the beach, for work or, less likely, pleasure. It was between Le Pouldu and Keranquernat—not quite part of either, but close enough to a dozen or so households that it could be a convenient place to stop in for a local hard cider and a gossip. Marie Henry called her inn the Buvette de la Plage. There’s nothing to tell us—nothing digitized, at least—of how she built it. She must have hired local craftsmen. Julien Gouanic, a stonemason, lived in nearby Keranquernat; in Kernou, going in the opposite direction, there was a carpenter called Guillaume Jolivet. There were odd-jobs men around who hired out for projects; one, Jean-François Capitaine, a 60ish day-laborer who lived in the nearby farming hamlet of Kersellec, would later run an important errand for Mademoiselle Henry, and he may have gotten to know her during this time.
Someone must have drawn up plans, whether in the sand or on drafting paper. And then, once there were plans, most men, and probably a few women, in the neighborhood would have known how to put up a building. These were country people, people used to making things work, keeping tools sharpened and clean, roofs tiled, fences and hedgerows solid. Almost everyone lived or worked on a farm where those skills meant the difference between success and failure, at best, and life and death, at worst. The Portier, Even, and Goulven families farmed much of the land going back several generations. The Portiers, who had sold the land to Marie Henry, could have hired out some of their farm workers to help in off-hours; the Goulvens, whose daughters may have brought her to the area, could have sent some of their younger kin to move stones around and hold beams steady while the more practiced set them in place.
When it was finished, Marie Henry had the name of the inn painted in large letters across the front of the building, so that there could be no mistake. The building had two levels. Visitors entered through the front door into a center hall with a staircase. On the right was a small room with a bar and a couple of tables. Behind it there was a small kitchen. To the left of the front door, there was a dining room for overnight guests. Upstairs were four bedrooms of varying sizes, one with a fireplace. Decades ago a French researcher added up all the bits of description that he could gather from assorted memoirs and commissioned a drawing:
Daniel Fort and Jean-Marie Cusinberche, The Buvette de la Plage, Interior, 1889-93, from Gauguin et ses amis peintres: La Collection Marie Henry, "Buvette de la plage", le Poldu, en Bretagne. Le Journal Maïnichi, 1992.
The caption for the drawing, published in a 1992 exhibition catalogue, calls it “The Buvette de la Plage, during Marie Henry’s time.” The caption could have read: “The Buvette de la Plage, as built and operated by Marie Henry.” Or: “Marie Henry’s Buvette de la Plage.” Instead, the caption makes the buvette an independent unit from Marie Henry; there’s no indication that she was the person who bought the land, worked with builders to construct it, and ran the inn for five years before leasing it out for another nearly twenty. The caption, like most of what's been written about Marie Henry, sidelines her. It's the Buvette that's important, according to the caption, not the person who owned it.
We do not know where Marie Henry was during construction. Someone had to pay for supplies and labor. Did she have adequate savings to cover the cost, or did she go back to work elsewhere and send cash regularly? And who supervised the construction: who chose
Handles for trunks and chests--Door knobs, Année 1914 / Manufacture française d'armes et cycles de Saint-Etienne, p. 928.
where to put the bar, and what the doorknobs should look like? If that information exists, it’s in a collection that hasn’t been digitized. It would be surprising if any documentation had survived; they’re not the sorts of details that people keep, if they’re people who don’t expect to be written about a century later.
A buvette is a snack bar: it’s not a restaurant, or a café, or a brasserie. Today a place called a beach snack bar would have white plastic chairs and tables sitting outside under umbrellas that advertised Stella Artois or Magnum. There would be signs advertising ice cream in the summer, and, on the menu, a few basic beers, some rough house wine, and whatever strong alcoholic concoction the locals fermented. There might be a plat du jour, a daily special. At the Buvette de la Plage, Marie Henry herself would thought up that special, putting whatever was in season from the garden together with a bit of fish or meat. Maybe a bit of local cheese. Nothing fancy or elaborate: country food and drink for country people.
We know that Marie Henry had opened the Buvette by June of 1889 because that month she paid wholesale taxes on the alcohol she had purchased to serve. Twenty-two months after purchasing the land, she was running her own business. Within a few months of opening, she would serve customers who would change the course of her life.
There's a house on our street that has been under construction since 2016. Unlike all the other new builds in our neighborhood, this one is not the work of a real estate developer. A family owns the lot and seems to be hiring builders to work on it when they can afford it. We walk by it almost every day and notice what's changed and what hasn't. Sometimes there's progress--window frames!--and then the next time we see it, the progress is undone, the window frames removed. We have bets on when, if, it will ever be finished.
The sandy field Marie Henry bought in two installments became a place that could shelter guests in less than two years. For that to have happened, she had to have had not only the money and the vision--but this young unmarried woman from another village had to have been able to organize the work, to pay enough for men to come back and work another day, to make sure that supplies were there on time. It's an act of creation. Before the guests came who would make it famous, she created a space, an environment, where she could live and work. Dozens of exhibitions have been installed, and hundreds of pages written, about the work that artists did at the Buvette de la Plage. In those exhibitions, on those pages, Marie Henry plays the role of the pretty young woman, "Marie Poupée," Marie the doll, mentioned and then discarded. The archives are almost silent. We have to listen closely to hear her voice, and we have to look in unexpected, unmined places: county land records, censuses, old post cards. And then we can hear and see. Marie Henry, almost 30 years old, orphaned, unmarried, barely educated: she built an inn. The existence of the building itself is Marie Henry's archival record.