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News Maryland Howard County Columbia

Zumiez at Mall in Columbia seeks to memorialize victims

A "B" and a "T" are etched into the black stone floor at Zumiez to remember Brianna Benlolo and Tyler Johnson.

Customers might not even notice the understated initials at the entrance of the Mall in Columbia skate shop. Not unless they were staring at the ground — an unlikely proposition in a newly redecorated store whose displays call out for attention with brightly colored clothing, loud slogans and giant posters.

Nonetheless, the letters are there, solemn memorials to the two young people who died Jan. 25 when 19-year-old Darion Aguilar opened fire in the store before killing himself. As Zumiez finally reopened this week, the etchings reflected an effort to commemorate the victims without allowing the horror to loom too large in a place of business.

While customers who frequent the mall for shopping, entertainment and dining said it was important to remember Benlolo, 21, and Johnson, 25, some agreed it was time to move forward from the tragedy that shook the 43-year-old mall at the center of the planned Howard County community.

"It was important that they closed just to show they felt for the people who died and to rearrange everything in the store," said Martina Friedrich, 25, of nearby Fulton. "But we have to go back on track."

Corporate and mall officials took a measured approach in marking the store's return. They allowed photojournalists to capture images of the store early Tuesday, a day after it raised its gates.

The event took place before any employees were around, and reporters were barred from entering the store. Mall officials and security officers did not allow any interviews at the shopping center.

Zumiez officials said in a statement that they conferred with both Benlolo's and Johnson's families before deciding to rearrange the remodeled store and "quietly" recognize both victims with the etchings. Neither family offered a comment on the reopening.

It's not just corporate bottom lines that are at stake with a store's reopening but also a community's psyche, according to Amanda Nicholson, a professor who specializes in retail at Syracuse University.

She recalled the 1983 bombing of Harrods department store in London by members of an Irish Republican Army group. The blast killed six and injured 90, but the store reopened three days later as a statement of strength, she said.

The same message came through after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when leaders across the United States urged residents to return to shopping and baseball games.

"Part of the community coming together was this feeling that you go on to show that you won't be cowered by these things," she said. "I think that's kind of American to do."

In Columbia, as in many American communities, the mall is an important part of life.

"If you don't know what to do, you go to the mall," said Friedrich, a recent immigrant from Germany who works as an au pair. "If you're looking for something and don't know where to get it, you go to the mall."

She said she was never scared to go to the mall before the shooting, and she's not scared now — though she can't help but think about the shooter when she passes the skateboarding shop. She said she wonders, "How bad does someone have to feel to walk in a store and shoot people?"

"Every time I pass the store — Zumiez — it reminds me," she said.

She said she knows parents who hid with their children in shops as the shots rang out, and she has talked with store managers who have told her the shooting has affected them deeply. She knows people are not over the terror.

But in this age when mass shootings can seemingly occur at any time, the best thing to do is keep a normal routine, some in Columbia said Tuesday.

"We've gotten used to the fact that anything can happen with all the shootings," said Bill Heiger, a retired 66-year-old government worker and Vietnam War veteran. From a dock at Lake Kittamaqundi, he plopped a bobber into the water and fished for sunfish and catfish.

Heiger said his wife was most likely at the nearby mall, where she spends much of her time. The attack didn't scare her off; she just became more aware of her surroundings.

"Just got to live your life as you would have normally," he said. "It's something that just happens every once in a while, and you don't know where it will happen."

All around the lake, people enjoyed the sunny day, going for jogs or enjoying a glass of white wine on the patio of Clyde's waterside restaurant. Japjit Kaur, an analyst from Clarksville who said she goes to the mall at least once a week, spent her lunch break on a bench overlooking the water.

She had been at the shopping center the night before the attack, a fact that was not lost on her as she returned a few days later.

"Part of it was to see what really happened there," she said. "We were scared, but we just couldn't stop ourselves from going to public spaces."

Shootings have occurred at high schools, colleges, movie theaters and work places, she said. Few places seem safe anymore. After the shootings of children at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., two years ago, she said, she fears "it could happen in my son's school."

Wearing a black blouse and pinstriped pants, she said she had to return to work. Her lunch break was almost over. But not before one observation.

"Sometimes I picture someone could come here with a gun," she said as birds chirped and paddle boats shaped like yellow duckies floated in her view. "What would you do? Even here."

jgeorge@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/justingeorge

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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