Sandi Fanin and Irma Acosta, co-owners of Salon Meritage, set butterflies… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)
Guests streamed through a Seal Beach salon Sunday to celebrate its reopening, sipping wine and mingling, marveling at design touches like the sleek barber chairs and travertine logo set into the floor.
But it was more than a grand opening for Salon Meritage. And the efforts to get to this point took far more than construction and color choices. It took months for the owners to decide whether this was a project they could pursue.
Just over a year ago, a man stormed into the salon one afternoon and opened fire. Seven people were killed and one was hurt in the salon as others tried to hide. Another man was shot dead in the parking lot. Scott Dekraai, the alleged gunman who was the estranged husband of one of the employees, is charged with eight counts of murder.
The massacre was Orange County's deadliest shooting. And Seal Beach, a city that residents see as a slice of small-town America on the coast of Southern California, was traumatized.
In the weeks after, the survivors — and the community — questioned whether the salon should reopen. But now that time has passed and as the salon prepares for its first clients this week, there's talk of renewal and of not letting the man accused of perpetrating this "win."
"It's a rebirth, not just for the wonderful people who work here but the community," said Fernando Dutra, the contractor on the reconstruction project. "It represents strength, love for one another. It represents a feeling of … accomplishment for the community. They won't let something like this be what this community is remembered for."
Jim Watson, the owner of the property, said that he had held off leasing the property for months, even as it sat vacant and others expressed interest. He wanted there to be time for Sandi Fannin, co-owner of the salon with her husband, Randy, who was among those killed, and Irma Acosta, a stylist at the salon who would become an owner, to decide the next step.
"They started out feeling it was too horrific — we can't come back," Watson said. "Their feelings changed. They didn't want this guy to cause more damage in their life."
But it required a complete overhaul. The salon was gutted, and the layout drastically altered. "We all knew we had to completely change the atmosphere," Watson said. "Anything that had a bad memory was removed."
Cynthia Pastor, the interior designer on the project, said the vision was to convey "glamour, elegance, warmth and community." From the wall coverings to the logo, she said, the intent was to reflect the resilience of Acosta and Fannin. "They didn't want to be defeated by this incident, or defined by it," Pastor said.
Acosta was swarmed as she worked her way through the crowd. Tears welled up as clients, colleagues and friends embraced her.
"It's all of these people who gave us the strength to come back," she said. "When you have people behind you, it actually gives you courage you didn't know you had."
It wasn't just the salon that had gone through a renewal, she said, but also her faith in others. She was stunned by the displays of compassion and kindness from those who helped — including the designers and businesses who donated their time and resources.
After an incident like the one they've gone through, she said, "sometimes you lose a little bit of that."
Fannin wrapped her arms around Acosta.
"I knew she could do it," she said of Acosta, who led the rebuilding effort. "I had total confidence in her. I'm proud of her."
Fannin kissed her on the cheek.
The wine and the food would be put away, and the guests would soon leave. The stylists would start unpacking their supplies and set up their equipment so that in the coming days they could get back to work.
As different as the inside of the salon had become, Fannin said, the memories of her husband and the others who died had not been erased — and that was the point of returning.
"It kind of feels like we're coming back home."