Father opens store in memory of son 30-year-old slain in botched holdup two years ago

October 08, 1992|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,Staff Writer

Aaron Samuel Levenson died at the age of 30 on a sidewalk in Southwest Baltimore on Oct. 4, 1990 -- shot three times in a bungled holdup outside the family furniture business.

Today, two years and four days after Joseph Levenson ran outside and saw his younger son's life bleeding away, the 72-year-old executive is unveiling a memorial in the only way a man who has spent his life selling furniture knows how.

He's opening a furniture store.

Aslan Valley Furniture Co., which occupies the old C. H. Lear's furniture store where the railroad tracks cross Seminary Avenue, derives its name from his son's initials, ASL, Joseph Levenson says.

As workers clanked around the plush couch where he sat and occasionally stroked a large stuffed lion resting on a coffee table, earlier this week, the frail-looking but formidable man with snow-white hair said he tacked the A-N on the initials to form the word "Aslan." He added "Valley" because "we're in the midst of all the valleys" -- Hunt, Greenspring, Worthington, Dulaney.

The new store has a business rationale. Since Lear's closed two years ago, "there was a dire need for a fine quality furniture store in north Baltimore," he said.

But the real reason Mr. Levenson is opening a new business when most men would be in retirement can be seen in the front of the store, where there hangs a portrait of the slain Aaron, who was manager and controller of the wholesale Royal Furniture Co.

"He was very quality-conscious. Aslan Valley is in his memory," Mr. Levenson said. "In my grief, this is my only outlet."

Aslan Valley is the first venture into retailing for the lifelong wholesaler. Still combative despite life's blows, he is adamant that the newbusiness is completely separate from Royal Furniture, the wholesale and manufacturing company that has been owned by his family since its founding in 1891.

"Aslan Valley will be operating strictly on its own," he said, concerned that the Levensons' venture into retailing would offend the designers and shop owners who are Royal's main customers.

"Royal will never be a retailer," he said. The Southwest Baltimore firm sells only to members of the furniture and design trade, as well as some buying clubs affiliated with various organizations.

Bucking a general trend toward discount retailing, Aslan Valley has its eye on the high end of the market in a business that has seen more closings than start-ups in recent years. The store will concentrate on such top-of-the-line brands as Henredon, Harden and Sherrill.

"We will not show the True Value, the Levitz, the Marlo type of furniture," said Mr. Levenson, naming three retailers that appeal more to the budget-conscious buyer.

While Mr. Levenson said Aslan Valley "is not intermingled in any way" with Royal, the Levensons clearly benefit from the expertise of Royal's staff and the relationships they have built up with leading manufacturers in their decades of running Royal, which attracts designers from all over the region to its vast showroom on South Monroe Street.

"A manufacturer of this quality will not go to somebody who's just opened a furniture store," says Jay Dinowitz, general manager of Royal, which will also be able to provide some warehouse space for the fledgling retail venture.

With the store's opening, Mr. Levenson will have completed the project that sustained him in the wake of his younger son's murder. His elder son, Robert D. Levenson, 41, is senior vice president of Royal.

"Transition is in the works," the elder Mr. Levenson said. "I am trying to back off. As soon as I establish [Aslan Valley] and see that it's running right, I will be turning it over to other people."

Two years after Aaron Levenson's death, his father said, the painhas eased a little. "I'm past the grief," he said. "I'm in the reality state now."

For the Levensons, reality has included attendance at a trial in which one of the men arrested for the killing, Marc Sean Howell, was acquitted. It has also meant watching as Jeffrey Lloyd Johnson, who shot Aaron Levenson in the chest, then pumped two more bullets into his prone body, was spared a sentence of life without parole and was given a chance of freedom in 20 years.

Joseph Levenson said he never got the chance to break the news to Aaron that he had just decided to make him president of Royal and turn over the reins.

But he does have a symbol to hold on to.

When he told friends about the name he had chosen for the store, Mr. Levenson recalled, they told him about a character in C. S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia" -- a lion named Aslan. "He was the force of good," Mr. Levenson recalled.

So when Aslan Valley designed its logo, included was the picture of a lion. And under the portrait in the front of the store will rest the stuffed lion.

"I look at that lion, and I think of my son Aaron," Mr. Levenson said.

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