A shopping trip to Perth was always an occasion when I was little.
Perth was a place of packed pavements, pick n mix and the closest thing to heaven – a ride up the escalator to the Woolworths cafeteria.
Later, Perth meant Concorde Music and Razzy jeans from the indoor market off South Methven Street. Christmas shopping, birthday vouchers, all the stuff we did before Amazon and ASOS delivered the world to our laptops.
And then I moved away. Loads changed. For me and Perth.
Woolies went, taking its escalator of dreams with it. House of Fraser made way for Debenhams on the High Street. Then Debenhams closed as well.
And now people tell a different story about Perth.
One former trader told us it was “dying” as she closed her bridal shop for good last month.
Iain Fenwick, director of the Perthshire Local brand, says the city has become the victim of a “shop and go” culture.
And whenever The Courier reports on the city centre – shops opening, shops closing, last Monday’s story suggesting ways to make more of the riverside setting – the comments come flooding in.
“Perth’s a ghost town”. “There’s no shops left.” “There’s nowhere to park.” “Perth councillors should be ashamed of themselves.” “Perth city centre is dying”.
So what’s really going on in Perth city centre?
I decided to ask some of the people who know best.
Perth High Street has seen better days
It’s a sunny Tuesday when I do something I haven’t done in years and spend an afternoon mooching round the shops in Perth.
The High Street is looking more down-at-heel than I remember. I count 10 ‘To Let’ signs and other empty windows.
Perth’s fine if you want your hair or nails done, or a charity shop. But there’s not the variety there was.
St John Street isn’t much better, although the lights are on and there are painters in the windows at the old McEwan’s building.
Three large units right next to the new Stone of Destiny museum in the Old City Hall stand empty and forlorn. The former Lakeland building is a vaccination centre.
“Perth’s fine if you want your hair or nails done, or a charity shop,” one lady tells me. “But there’s not the variety there was.”
There are shoppers on the streets though – more than I’d expected.
People sit on benches, carrier bags at their feet, and customers watch the world go by from the many pavement coffee shops.
Marks and Spencer is still there on the High Street. So is Next. So are Boots, New Look, FatFace and Superdrug.
Debenhams is notable by its absence. But the units in the neighbouring St John Centre are filled with familiar names like River Island, Waterstones and Ernest Jones.
High Street suits us fine, say new businesses
The north end of Perth High Street is more independent. There’s a triangle of charity stores – the modern boutiquey kind – as well as coffee shops and smaller units occupied by barbers and bakers
And it’s here I find Emma Steele, who opened Rabbit Hole Cakes in November 2021 when the business she launched during lockdown grew too big for her house.
She makes everything from cupcakes to wedding cakes. And I have to make three attempts to visit her because the shop is never free of customers.
Like a lot of the traders I speak to, she finds the “Perth is dying” narrative unhelpful – and untrue.
“I think it puts people off coming into town to see for themselves,” she says.
“This is still a really nice high street and Perth is lucky to have so many small, independent shops.”
At Brew and Chew across the street, supervisor Thomas Harrison explains the cafe’s ethos – “Dogs are welcome, people are tolerated” – as we talk beneath a gallery of photos of the venue’s four-legged patrons.
Thomas grew up in Perth. So, like me, he notices the lack of high end names like Debenhams and McEwans.
But that shouldn’t take away from the business that’s still here, he says.
“Some places are struggling,” he acknowledges.
“We are part of a family of cafes, along with Willows, and we had to close our third cafe in South Street not so long ago. It was a shame. But a lot of its regulars come here now.”
He adds: “The town was really busy when Pride was on and during the Gran Fondo cycling event.
“The people are still there, maybe they just need more reasons to come in.”
There’s life beyond the high street
Step off the High Street and you’ll soon sense a different side to Perth.
George Street in particular has a bustling, hipster vibe. It’s not shoulder-to-shoulder with shoppers, but they’re there.
Provender Brown delicatessen has been a George Street fixture since 2005; Whispers of the Past antiques since 1984. The Bean Shop‘s speciality coffees and Casella and Polegato‘s bakery would be an asset to any capital in Europe.
Terra Botanica is one of the newer additions.
The florist’s store, owned by the aptly named Dougie Flower, is coming up for its two-year anniversary.
While business is decent on George Street – there’s barely an empty unit here – he reckons city leaders could be looking for more imaginative ways to fill the High Street again.
That might be incentives for smaller traders to move into vacant premises, in the form of lower rates and rents, or sub-dividing bigger spaces to make them more affordable.
“The High Street is the high street,” says Dougie.
“When people visit a town they go to the high street, And if all they see in Perth are empty shops there’s a danger they won’t explore any further.”
The Spotty Tiger is newer still.
Laura Geekie and Jo Machray opened their shop selling children’s clothes, toys, books and gifts at the Concert Hall end of George Street in June.
Footfall is decent. But they’re working hard to build up a social media presence too.
One recent Facebook video took followers on a tour of fellow traders and spawned comments of the “I never realised Perth had all these places” variety.
“The High Street is a bit depressing at the moment,” says Laura, whose mum runs Marian’s of Perth, the women’s clothes shop that’s been a staple of North Methven Street for more than 50 years.
“But there are plenty of other streets that are really vibrant right now.
“And I wish more people would just walk off the High Street and come for a look.”
‘Use it or lose it’ – independent traders need our custom
Monika Staszak at Polka.Dot boutique would love to be on the High Street, but couldn’t fill and staff one of those massive units, quite aside from the cost of rent.
So for now, she’s doing fine on Princes Street. But there’s plenty more that Perth could be doing to boost its appeal, she says.
It could be making empty units more affordable, and making landlords keep them clean and tidy. It could be shifting parking costs away from shoppers. And it could be putting on more activities to bring people into the city centre.
Imagine if everyone in Perth bought one thing from an independent trader every week
Her home town in Poland is on a lakeside. And she’s enthusiastic about a recent suggestion from Perth Chamber of Commerce president Lori McGaffney that the city should make more of its prime location by the Tay.
When friends visit they rave about how gorgeous Perth is. But they are always mystified that there aren’t more bars and cafes and restaurants along the riverside.
Mostly though, Monika would love to see a change in shopping habits, away from the “pile them high, sell them cheap” mentality and back to the appeal of local businesses serving local communities.
“Imagine if everyone in Perth bought one thing from an independent trader every week,” she says.
“If instead of buying a bunch of flowers from Asda they went to the florist round the corner, or instead of buying a card in the supermarket they went to an independent gift shop. Just one thing a week would make such a difference if everybody did it.”
‘For every shop that’s closed I could show you dozens that have opened’
Dawn Fuge at Precious Sparkle, on Bridge Lane, is reluctant to speak at first. She’s another one who’s weary of the naysayers.
But she’s also really passionate about Perth city centre. And once she hits her stride, there’s no stopping her.
She’s part of the Perth City Leadership Forum and she’s brimming over with ideas: sub-dividing bigger units, bringing more services like opticians and podiatrists into the city centre, redeveloping upper floors into flats…
But there’s also lots that’s great about the place already. Dawn points to the floral displays, the street art, the river, the bike she cycles to work on…
And she’s positive the revamped City Hall, and its £26 million museum complete with Stone of Destiny will be a catalyst for change when it opens next year.
“I spend a lot of my time travelling around other cities so I know Perth is already punching above its weight,” she says.
“We’re spoiled for choice when it comes to restaurants and cafes. We’ve got lots of really interesting independent shops. Some of them have been here for hundreds of years.
“And for every shop that’s closed I could walk you round and show you dozens that have opened in the last few years.”
Different generations want different things
It’s not all positive.
A few of the older traders don’t want their names in The Courier, but they do want to talk about the “undesirables” on the streets; the drinkers and beggars and drug users.
They agree more needs to be done to signpost potential customers beyond the High Street.
And this pre-pedestrianisation generation are more likely to hark back to a time when parking was free and easy and roadworks didn’t last for weeks.
There’s an age divide among the shoppers I speak to too. For the younger crowd, coffee shops, funky barbers and tattoo artists aren’t a sign of decline.
But for the greying ladies on the benches outside Boots, they’re further evidence that Perth city centre’s glory days are behind it.
“There’s folk going about,” says one. “But I don’t think they’re buying much.”
“The council’s spent all that money on the City Hall,” says her pal. “They’d be better doing something with the High Street.”
They’ve both found a reason to be in Perth city centre on this Tuesday afternoon though.
And that’s more than a lot of us can say.
Perth’s not dying – but it hurts it to say so
My cousin, Kayti Masson, has run Elegance, the hat shop in Atholl Street, with my Auntie Evelyn since 1988. Her wee sister Lynda Wilson, who used to work at McEwens, became a partner in 2014.
When I call in, Kayti has a cutting from The Courier on her desk and a half-written, strongly-worded WhatsApp message to me on her phone.
It’s that recent story, with its claim that Perth city centre is “dying” that’s got her goat.
Because it’s not true, she insists.
Yes, it’s tough. It’s tough everywhere at the moment. But it’s been tougher in the 35 years that Elegance has been there.
“There are still people out there,” says Kayti. “They’re still buying stuff.
“You can’t sit back and wait for them to come through the door though. Or sit around blaming the council, or blaming society. You build up your online shop, you do your social media. You work with other traders.
“We get people coming from Edinburgh and Aberdeen and Glasgow, and we’ll tell them where to go for lunch in Perth, what other shops to go to while they’re here. They’re always impressed.”
Lynda agrees that reports of the death of Perth city centre have been greatly exaggerated.
“But,” she warns. “If enough people say something and enough people start to believe them, there’s a danger it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.”
When did YOU last shop in Perth?
So what is really happening with Perth city centre?
It’s complicated. And there are bigger forces at play.
High streets across the country are not what they were. Consumer habits have changed
One man tells me he’d like to drop all the critics in the centre of Ayr for a day and really give them something to complain about.
Moving shops to out of town retail units and workers to out of town industrial parks was only ever going to end one way – for Perth and everywhere else.
More than one lady of a certain age tells me if M&S leaves the High Street, they’re done.
And then there’s us.
I had a birthday present to buy on the day of my first visit. So I ordered something off Etsy on my phone while I was waiting for the bus. Because that’s what we do now.
I only took the bus because I’d been told parking in this supposed ghost town was a nightmare. But it’s not. The second time I took the car and parked all afternoon at the South Inch for £4.30.
By then I’d been reminded there are actual bricks and mortar shops in Perth. Nice ones too. So I bought another present, and some birthday cards. And some posh honey for myself. And it felt good.
I don’t remember what the adults spoke about while I was being dazzled by the 70s Formica in Woolies cafeteria. But – human nature being what is is – I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a variation on the theme of “Perth city centre isn’t what it used to be”.
It probably wasn’t then. It definitely isn’t now. But it’s far from dead.
It’s home to an impressive variety of independent traders – many of whom were there before the chain stores’ rise and fall, all of whom are more rooted in this community than the big guns will ever be.
If Perth city centre dies it won’t be through their lack of trying.
Can the rest of us say the same?