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. Nonetheless, the letters are memorials to the two young people who were slain Jan. 25 when police say 19-year-old Darion Aguilar opened fire in the store before killing himself.
As Zumiez reopened this week, the etchings reflected an effort to commemorate the victims without allowing the horror to loom too large.
Although customers who frequent the mall for shopping, entertainment and dining said it was important to remember Benlolo, 21, and Johnson, 25, some said it was time to move forward from the tragedy that shook the mall at the center of Columbia, 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. “But we have to go back on track.”
Mall officials took a measured approach to the store’s return. They allowed photojournalists to capture images of the store early Tuesday but barred reporters from entering the store. Mall officials did not allow any interviews at the shopping center.
It’s not just corporate bottom lines that are affected by the store’s reopening but also a community’s psyche, said Amanda Nicholson, a professor who specializes in retail management at Syracuse University.
“Every time I pass the store — Zumiez — it reminds me,” said Friedrich, who is from Germany and works as an au pair. She knows parents who hid with their children in mall shops as the shots were fired. She knows that 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 people interviewed in Columbia said Tuesday.
“Just got to live your life as you would have normally,” Bill Heiger, a retired government worker, said as he fished at Lake Kittamaqundi, near the mall. “It’s something that just happens every once in a while, and you don’t know where it will happen.”
Japjit Kaur, an analyst from Clarksville, spent her lunch break on a bench overlooking the water. She had been at the mall 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 workplaces, she said. Few places seem safe anymore. After the shootings of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, she said, she fears that “it could happen in my son’s school.”
Her lunch break almost over, she made one more observation.
“Sometimes, I picture someone could come here with a gun,” she said as birds chirped and paddle boats made to look like yellow ducks floated by. “What would you do? Even here?”