Seal Beach beauty salon reopening: The effort to transcend Salon Meritage's deadly shootings

Very little of the original store design is left, as the interior is gutted, but the original Salon Meritage sign remains.
Very little of the original store design is left, as the interior is gutted, but the original Salon Meritage sign remains.
Ashley Myers-Turner/KPCC

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On Oct. 12, 2011, eight people were shot and killed, seven inside a Seal Beach hair salon, in the worst mass murder in Orange County history. The alleged shooter — the ex-husband of a hair stylist — is on trial for murder. The killings shocked the beach town of 25,000 people. But now, nine months later, the salon where the shooting occurred is being transformed. Workers have dismantled everything inside and begun rebuilding from floor to ceiling.

For a few months after the tragedy, no one seemed interested in reopening Salon Meritage. Too many memories. Too much shock and pain.

“At first I didn’t think I’d ever be able to step in there again,” said stylist Sandi Fannin, who owned Salon Meritage with her husband, Randy.

Randy was killed in the salon, along with six other stylists and customers — and a man sitting in a car parked outside. But Fannin has been back inside the salon several times since that tragic day.

“After a while I just had more of a sense of peace about being in there,” Fannin said.

But Fannin was not sure about reopening. She asked longtime employee and friend, stylist Irma Acosta, if she wanted to take over the salon.

“I just could not go back in and do this and own it and run it by myself without Randy,” Fannin explained. “And so when I approached Irma with it, she was more than happy to do it.”

Irma Acosta started at Salon Meritage when it first opened. Now, she is part of its rebirth.

“You know, it has never been a question of reopening it, it has always just been a question of when,” said Acosta.

For Fannin and Acosta, reopening honors the spirit of the people killed last October. To get things rolling, building owner Jim Watson introduced the women to Long Beach designer Cynthia Pastor.

“Coming into the salon as a newcomer, I wanted to envision something for these women, that really is the bravery, the courage and the wonderful spirit of life that they exemplify,” said Pastor.

Pastor did not know any of the clients or salon staff, but had worked for building owner Watson in the past. The three women met in Pastor's home to talk about the project. Fannin and Acosta told Pastor they wanted the old salon’s warm atmosphere reflected in the new interior.

“So my job is to guide them along with their hopes and dreams and try to interpret those through luscious textures, lighting, fabrics, just the overall feel for the salon, and the clients are going to have that warm atmosphere where they can enjoy that camaraderie that they had before and go forward,” Pastor said.

Pastor is donating her time. She said the design will showcase elegance, glam — and a little whimsy and fun.

“I think part of the vision is the word ‘transformation,’” said Pastor. “Because it (the salon) really can never go back to what it was, it can only go forward, and so can the people and their lives.”

While Pastor focuses on the interior, building owner Watson is making structural changes. He said too many memories are connected to specific locations inside the old salon.

“Such as what happened in the bathrooms, where the door locations were, the salon stations, the shampoo bowls,” said Watson, his pale blue eyes becoming misty while he recalled the shooting. “So all of those had some very distinct, individual, very traumatic memories.”

Watson said those locations have all been moved in the new floor plan.

“The configuration, you wouldn’t recognize it,” he said. “We also have moved the doors and we are putting in two new doors in different locations.”

The changes are not just a business decision for Watson.

“This is way beyond what you would normally do, but this was such an extraordinary tragedy, such an extraordinary incident,” Watson said. “We live in this town, my wife Judy and I. My business is here. We know so many people. Randy [Fannin] gave me my haircuts.”

And when the redesign is finished, Lori Johns is looking forward to coming back. She had her hair done at Salon Meritage for 15 years.

“I was very relieved and happy that the salon is going to be reopened,” said Johns.

New owner Acosta says that day is getting closer.

“It is not about me reopening it,” said Acosta. “It is about the community — Jim [Watson], Cynthia [Pastor] — everybody that has come forward to help, and that feels the same way, that we should not let it go dark, that we should reopen and move forward.”

The name, Salon Meritage, will be the same. And Acosta said nearly all the employees who survived the shooting are coming back to work.

Former owner Sandi Fannin will be there, too. But she said it won’t be the same.

“I’m hoping when it’s all changed and redone that it will be so different that everybody will be really comfortable going back in,” said Fannin, whose daughter, Kelli Vasquez, will also be returning to work at the salon.

The salon is expected to reopen sometime in late August or early September, when Salon Meritage will once again be a blend of family, friends and community — and hair and nails, too.