Famous Bookstore Attracts Photographers, Not Buyers

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The bookshop made famous in the movie Notting Hill will close next week unless a buyer is found. A campaign has been started to keep the travel bookshop open. The founder of the shop says people are more interested in taking the store's picture than coming inside to buy a book.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And now we have a more contemporary story, which began when a character named Anna Scott meets William Thacker in the romantic comedy "Notting Hill." The actors playing those roles were big stars, and the movie made another star out of a small London bookstore, which is now said to be handed over to liquidators next week. Vicki Barker filed this report.

(Soundbite of movie, "Notting Hill")

Ms. JULIA ROBERTS (Actor): (As Anna Scott): Yesterday was our last day of filming. So I'm leaving.

VICKI BARKER: In the 1999 film "Notting Hill," the movie star played by real-life movie star Julia Roberts pleads for one last chance with shy bookstore owner Hugh Grant, with unwelcome interruptions from the occasional customer.

(Soundbite of movie, "Notting Hill")

Ms. JULIA ROBERTS: (As Anna Scott) The thing is...

Mr. HUGH GRANT (Actor): (As William Thacker) What? What is the thing?

(Soundbite of door opening)

Mr. HUGH GRANT (Actor): Don't even think about it. Go away immediately. Go away.

Unidentified Man #1: Right. Sorry.

BARKER: Outside the real-life travel bookshop where that scene was set, the fans keep coming.

Unidentified Woman: Look here and press that.

BARKER: OK.

Unidentified Woman: OK.

Unidentified Man #2: Thank you.

BARKER: All right.

Spanish tourist Natalia Morena wants her picture taken in front of the blue painted facade so familiar to a few hundred well-read Londoners and a few million movie fans.

Ms. NATALIA MORENA: I'm a fan of Julia Roberts.

BARKER: Did you buy any books in there?

Ms. MORENA: No, nothing, no. No. I only just look.

BARKER: And there it is, as the Brits would say. The film has been great for business, if your business is window-shopping.

Ms. SARAH ANDERSON (Founder, The Travel Bookshop): Can I take your photograph? Photograph, photograph.

(Soundbite of laughter)

But frankly, for sales: no, not terribly. They're not book-buyers, these photograph-takers.

BARKER: This is the real-life prototype for Hugh Grant. Sarah Anderson founded The Travel Bookshop in the late 1970s. It moved to its present site in 1981, where it quickly became a Notting Hill fixture, its jumbled shelves belying what was then an innovative organizational principle: guide books, travel literature, poetry - arranged by country, not genre.

In its glory days, you might have run into travel writers Paul Theroux or Colin Thubron here, among many others. Anderson sold up years ago, but she still owns the building, living above the store and charging its current owners, she says, the lowest rent on the block. Even so, the place is losing money.

A few of the store's regulars have launched a campaign to try to save it, even offering to work for free. Anderson calls the gesture touching, but unrealistic.

Ms. ANDERSON: Obviously, I'm, you know, quite flattered that something that I started has engendered all this incredible interest.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ANDERSON: But frankly, I mean staff costs are not the problem.

BARKER: Arts journalist Nina Caplan says the same story is playing out in small independent bookstores across Britain.

Ms. NINA CAPLAN (Journalist): They're closing down at the rate of two a week, which is just terrifying. Nowhere can lose two bookshops a week. And some of those, like the Notting Hill Travel Bookshop, are specialists.

BARKER: When such shops go, Caplan says, all the collective wisdom and archival riches gathered beneath one roof go with them.

(Soundbite of cash register)

BARKER: Most of the shelves in the travel bookshop are empty now. The books remaining are all 50 percent off. Even at these fire sale prices, more people are browsing than buying.

Unlike Julia Roberts in the movie, the travel bookshop of Notting Hill probably won't get one last chance.

For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker, in London.

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