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Flat above bookshop that inspired Notting Hill for sale

Ever since Richard Curtis’ 1999 film Notting Hill brought a warm glow to romcom fans the world over and netted more than $360m at the box office excited crowds have flocked to west London to take selfies at 13 Blenheim Crescent, the site of the Travel Bookshop, where Hugh Grants bumbling but dashing bookseller started his on-off-on-again romance with Julia Roberts’ film star.
Devotees come to pay tribute to the inspiration for the quirky bookshop at the heart of the film, which was based on the very real Travel Bookshop, just off Portobello Road and now adorned with a plaque celebrating its movie links. Unlike Grants character, William Thacker, who lived nearby, Sarah Anderson, its real-life owner, lived above the shop. She didn’t have a lairy Welsh flatmate, a movie-star love interest or much else in common with the floppy-haired romantic hero, either.

Richard Curtis lived just around the corner, recalls Anderson, who founded the bookshop in 1981, when Notting Hill was a bohemian backwater. He was a customer, and came in one day and said, I’m thinking of making a film set in a bookshop. Do you mind if I take some notes? I said, Of course, thinking it probably wouldn’t go anywhere.

The next thing that happened was that he sent a photographer round to take some stills of the outside of the shop, which were used to build the set. It was only when I saw them filming on Portobello Road that I realised it was definitely happening.

The film cemented the pastel-hued houses of Portobello Road and its surroundings as the des-res district of the capital. It painted a sugary picture of a tight-knit community of colourful, if strictly monocultural, characters living in beautiful and mysteriously affordable homes that permanently glowed in the sunlight. It put Anderson and her shop on the map, too.

None of the blockbuster was shot in either the real shop or the flat. Exterior scenes were filmed at a vacant shop nearby, and Anderson says she never received a fee or a credit although the film company did send her a bottle of champagne. She does, however, recall a visit to her shop by Grant and Roberts. He bought a book, she didn’t.

Anderson sold the business in the 1990s, before the film was made, but continued to run the shop for the new owners until 2005. Today, there’s still a bookshop on the ground floor, and having lived above it for 35 years, she is now selling her two-bedroom first- and second-floor flat for 1.495m. The 1,200 sq ft property has a pretty south-facing roof terrace, packed with pot plants, and a spacious main bedroom and bathroom on the top floor. The walls along the stairs are lined with paintings, many of them Andersons own. (She uses one of the bedrooms as an artists studio.) She knocked through to join the modern kitchen-dining area to the living room, where high ceilings and a large window lend an airy feel.

Not surprisingly, the shelves are crammed with books despite a pre-move clear-out. I’ve already given 40 bin bags full of books to Oxfam, and every one was a wrench.

The success of the film changed Andersons life. The shop became world-famous, she says. It even became a stop for the tour buses. Everywhere I go in the world, people know it. I’m always introduced as the owner of the bookshop in Notting Hill. It was fun. And all the other things I’ve done journalism, travel writing and the three books I’ve written were because of the doors it opened.

Those books include her own idiosyncratic guide to Notting Hill, as well as Halfway to Venus, a memoir about her life with one arm. She lost the other to cancer at the age of 10. I suppose opening a bookshop wasn’t the most sensible thing to do, with so many heavy things to carry around, but its never been a problem, she says.

In her own way, Anderson has also aided and abetted the rapid gentrification of the west London postcode.

When I moved in, people said, Notting Hill? Nobody’s ever heard of Notting Hill. But I had a hunch about the area.

What a hunch it turned out to be. When she arrived, looking to upgrade her existing bookshop in Kensington to one with accommodation attached, the area was best known for race riots and squatters. She had a grandstand view of the regular fights that broke out at the pub opposite (its now a pan-Asian restaurant, E&O), and, although the pretty communal gardens were still there, many of the grand 19th-century homes had been divided into squalid bedsits.

Its a very different story today. The antiques market and fruit and veg stalls remain, but the streets are full of smart restaurants, designer boutiques and the inevitable coffee shops. The buildings are being converted back into single houses and there’s a strong whiff of affluence in the air. This, remember, is where David Cameron and George Osborne, the so-called Notting Hill set, plotted to get the Tories back into power during the mid-Noughties. 

Andersons was the first bookshop in the area, and she started a trend for specialist booksellers (Books for Cooks, which you can see from the window, is still going strong) exactly the kind of niche business that jump-starts the gentrification process.

Not that she has any regrets: Wherever I go, people anywhere in the world ask me about the shop, and I can hardly go out of the door without being photographed. At 67, however, shes ready for a change, and is moving south of the river to a flat in Battersea. I reckon I’ve got one more move in me, and I want to do it before the stairs become a problem, she says.
As well as a charming place to live, a tourist attraction and the prestige of owning a small landmark in movie history, Anderson says that whoever buys her flat will be getting one advantage they may not have thought some people are apprehensive about living above a shop, but its incredibly safe and there’s always someone to take in parcels.

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