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Liz Baker

Tops grocery store in Buffalo reopens to mixed reactions after mass shooting

LeCandice Durham, Lenny Lane and their children stand by the Tops parking lot entrance in Buffalo, N.Y., on Friday to welcome back customers and employees on opening day after the supermarket was closed after May's mass shooting. (Liz Baker)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Two months after the racist mass shooting that killed 10 people and injured three others at a Buffalo supermarket, the store has reopened to a community still in mourning.

The Tops grocery store "quietly" opened its doors Friday morning, according to a Tops news release, with a prayer and a brief cheer from employees, customers and community members who showed up to support the reopening.

LeCandice Durham and her family showed up with sparkly homemade signs reading "WELCOME BACK TOPS" and "WE ♥ U!"

"I'm just happy to be here, [to] welcome in the employees, the customers, as they come in to shop for the first time in two months," Durham said, as her young daughter proudly held up a bag of chips purchased inside. Her family had gone in already, but as for herself, Durham said, "I think for now, outside is the best place for me, just because I don't want to cry. I want to be strong today for the brave, courageous people who came back to work."

During a small reopening ceremony on Thursday, Tops Friendly Markets President John Persons said a quarter of the employees who used to work at this location chose not to return. He said that the company has found places for those employees at other locations and that he stands by his decision to renovate this store, rather than build a new one from the ground up.

"We think being able to reopen to the community respectfully and honorably, to be able to do that in two months versus 2 1/2 to three years, we think is the right decision," Persons said.

Not everyone agrees.

"We're saying that it's too soon to go back into a store where we're literally walking on the blood of our elders and those that have died to get things that we need," said activist Jalonda Hill. "It's also retraumatizing to go back into a space where people have been murdered."

On opening day, Hill and a small group of demonstrators gathered on the sidewalk in front of the store. "I don't want to see business as usual, because my life has not been the same since [the attack]," protested Jerome Wright, who has circulated a petition to get the store to close again.

Sarah Jacobs and Anthony X hold signs in protest of the reopening of Tops supermarket after May's mass shooting there. They believe the site should have been turned into a memorial park and a new Tops built elsewhere in East Buffalo. (Liz Baker)

But many people were going right back inside to shop, though some expressed apprehension about walking through the same automatic doors that let in a gunman just a couple of months ago.

"It was emotional, it was emotional," said Kenny Gaston, who went inside to pick up some fruit for his father.

"We now, on the one hand, look at it as sacred ground," he said, when asked about the reluctance that some people have about shopping there again.

"People wouldn't tread over graveyards or cemeteries. This has some of the same perspective for some of our people. On the other hand, we've been traumatized for centuries ... but our ancestors always rose above it and kept moving forward. That's why I'm here today," explained Gaston. And, he said, the renovations inside the store were nice, especially those in the produce department, which Tops says it expanded as part of the changes.

Inside, there's brighter lighting, new paint and flooring — and a memorial wall featuring a poem about the healing power of water, by Buffalo poet laureate Jillian Hanesworth. The store also now features an increased security presence, an updated camera and alarm system, and more emergency exits than required in the building code, according to a news release.

A water wall inside the newly reopened Tops grocery store pays tribute to the shooting victims with a poem by Buffalo's poet laureate, Jillian Hanesworth. (Liz Baker)

Even so, activists and members of the community are quick to point out that this Tops, despite being the only supermarket for this community, was run-down compared with other Tops stores in Buffalo and that the systemic problems that led to the massacre still exist. This Tops is the only supermarket for Buffalo's majority-Black East Side, which made it an easy target for a racist gunman looking to kill Black people.

"Let's start looking at this area and seeing what we can develop, because it's well needed," said Lenny Lane, whose group, Buffalo F.A.T.H.E.R.S., has been holding cookouts near the Tops since the shooting.

"We need so much that I don't even know where to start," Lane said. "But we start here. We needed a good supermarket, and we got it. But my God, look at what had to happen before we got it."

WBFO's Tom Dinki contributed to this report.

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