Christine Chen was at the King Soopers on Saturday morning, agonizing over whether to get silver or gold balloons for a 5-year-old’s birthday party.
Chen called the store on Table Mesa Drive a “hub for the community.” It sits at the intersection of multiple residential areas in Boulder, Colo. There are schools nearby, a senior center, a library. She goes regularly now as a resident, but Chen also went as a child when her grandmother lived in the area. In a town where she often feels like the only person of color in social settings, “going into King Soopers you would just see such a cross section of humanity.” The store is known for employing people who are developmentally disabled, residents said.
It’s part of a national chain, but it feels like a neighborhood store.
“It’s a place where people run into each other and stop and chat in the aisles or outside in the parking lot,” Chen said. “Teenagers, when they have a break, they’ll go down and skateboard there and pick up snacks. I always run into my nephew there.”
That neighborhood store, a gathering place for Boulder residents, is also now the site of another mass shooting in America.
On Monday, a 21-year-old Colorado man walked into the store and shot 10 people. Three of the victims were employees of the store, essential workers who risked their health working there during the pandemic.
The King Soopers will remain shuttered as law enforcement investigates the shooting, parent company Kroger said. If it reopens, store regulars say they hope it continues to be the same social gathering spot it has been for years, that it will not be defined by the violent act that took place there.
“We don’t want it to change,” said Nancy Wade, a resident who has lived in Boulder and been a store regular for 19 years. “I want it to be the same as it was. I don’t want it to be thought of as a place bad things happen.”
She said the staff there are like family. She mourned the loss of Teri Leiker, one of the victims, a longtime employee who Wade called a “very upbeat, jovial woman.” “Everybody in town knows who Teri is.”
“When you run into the grocery store two or three times a week, you see them week in and week out,” Wade said. “There are some checkers, I’ve seen pictures of their grandkids. You see some getting older, and you wonder when they’ll be able to retire. That’s a hard job, they’re on their feet all day.”
Another resident, a 67-year-old who did not want her name published because of privacy concerns, said she has raised three children in Boulder and that she has been going to that store for nearly three decades. She choked up as she described what it has meant to her family.
“There is one clerk in particular … I was a single mom and took my son there as a toddler, she basically watched him grow up,” she said. “They would give a free cookie to every kid. She would always be nice to him and talk to him, give him a penny to ride the horse that was there.”
When her son went off to college, the same employee would ask how he was doing. On a recent visit home, her son introduced his new husband to the clerk.
Still, she is not sure whether the shooting will change whether she is comfortable going to the store in the future.
“I want to say yes and no,” she said.
Experts on the psychological impact of trauma say it is normal for there to be uncertainty about risks associated with a place after a traumatic event has happened there.
“When something like that happens, there is a natural reaction to try and avoid or minimize exposure to places or circumstances that can be dangerous in our mind,” said Emanuel Maidenberg, a clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA.
“People who are very close to that place when it happened may have even more difficulty returning to this place,” he added. “But it’s so important to do it at some point. Because the social connection, the contact, the social support, being able to talk to somebody about the experience is part of the healing process itself.”
Maidenberg said people may be especially worried about the scene of a disaster when the disaster is human caused, such as in a mass shooting. Most people recognize that natural disasters, by contrast, are out of their control.
But with traumas such as mass shootings, “we have some sort of tendency or intuition that we can have more control over it, we can control our own behavior to not expose ourselves to these circumstances, which is just ultimately an illusion of some kind. Because we still don’t know exactly when and what’s going to happen.”
Erika Felix, a trauma researcher who focuses on disaster mental health, says risk perception can be especially heightened right after a disaster.
Eventually, she said, that sense of risk will fade.
“We can’t stay at this hyper-arousal and anxiety all the time,” said Felix, who is an associate professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. “We have to go to the grocery store. We still go to the movies.”
Communities can cope by reclaiming the space. They can set up a memorial, or “do something to take it back from this dark memory,” she said.
Felix recalled her university’s own mass shooting in 2014, when a gunman killed six people and wounded 14 others near the campus. The deadly attack was carried out in multiple locations, including outside a deli market in Isla Vista, Calif.
“There was a memorial set up there. They’ve now moved it but in the initial aftermath, people brought flowers,” Felix said.
“Students graduate, so everybody who was there has graduated, but faculty and staff still go,” she said about the market. “When I see it … I do think of the event, but I can still go in.”
She said she imagines the community in Boulder may have a similar response.
“Communities tend to come together in the aftermath, and I bet they will reclaim it. It was theirs before, it’s still there — a horrible tragedy happened but there are other memories associated with it as well,” she said.
Three days after she stopped at the store to pick up those balloons, Chen was back at King Soopers, laying flowers outside.
She said her fellow Boulder residents are “really shaken up, people are reeling.”
But she recalled living in New York after 9/11 and living in Tokyo following Japan’s massive tsunami-triggering earthquake in 2011.
“Communities pull together in moments of crisis and trauma and come together to remember those who were lost and remember our humanity, and I think that’s what’s happening here,” she said.
If the King Soopers reopens, she plans to return.
“People go to this store to get the essentials for living, they go there to get food and medications and household goods and to me, this store is actually about life and living,” Chen said. “My hope is that people will remember that and that it will be a place to honor those who lost their lives and to remember them instead of remembering their deaths.”