Al Lowen; Proprietor Of Bethesda Toy Store
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2004; Page B07
Al Lowen, whose toy shop kept a generation of Washington area children entertained and amused, died June 15 at a hospital in Boca Raton, Fla., of a stroke. He was 89 and had lived in Florida since 1981, when he sold his shop in Bethesda.
Mr. Lowen spent more than 40 years in the toy business, beginning in the late 1930s with a variety store he owned in Takoma Park. From 1943 to 1961, he was the toy and luggage buyer for the old Lansburgh's department store in Washington. In 1961, he bought Dart Toytown in Silver Spring, then moved it to downtown Bethesda in 1963, reopening as Lowen's Toy Store.
During the 18 years that Mr. Lowen ran the store on Wisconsin Avenue, it became an institution. Patrons included members of Congress, entertainers and media figures. Martha Mitchell, the gregarious and controversial wife of former U.S. attorney general John N. Mitchell, would leave her limousine parked at the front door while she chatted and shopped inside.
The store had been "one of the Washington area's most enduring toy emporiums," noted a Washington Post article in 1992, when Mr. Lowen's successor went out of business and closed the doors of the shop for good.
"We were careful, built it up gradually, spent 80 and 90 hours a week in there," said Mr. Lowen, whose wife, Gert, also worked at the store. He was proud that their sales increased every year that they owned the shop.
But when Mr. Lowen sold the business in 1981, it may have been at just the right time -- he had predicted that the new electronic games then coming into vogue were just a fad.
Mr. Lowen stocked the shop with high-quality goods and had a subtle style of salesmanship. Rather than trying to sell an entire toy train set, for example, he would recommend that parents buy just a part of a more expensive set, thus creating a hobby for their children -- and future customers for himself.
Mr. Lowen was born Horst Wessel Lowenstein in Germany and was an outstanding soccer player in his youth. As the only Jewish member of his team, he received a private escort to and from games by members of the German SS, but his mother urged him to leave the country before life became too intolerable for Jews.
When he arrived alone in Washington in 1936, at age 22, he had $2.50 in his pocket. He changed his name to Alfred H. Lowen, then became a U.S. citizen in the early 1940s.
He stocked shelves for the Hecht Co. before becoming a busboy and waiter at the Mayflower Hotel. He ran a boarding house in Washington for other immigrants from Germany before opening his variety store in Takoma Park.
Mr. Lowen lived in Silver Spring from 1953 to 1981 and was a member of the Ohr Kodesh congregation in Chevy Chase. He enjoyed playing bridge and, after retiring to Florida, playing golf.
His marriage to Bernice Levine Lowen ended in divorce.
Survivors include his wife of 50 years, Gert Simon Elstein Lowen of Boca Raton; a son from his first marriage, Arthur Lowen of Nashville; two stepchildren, Daniel Elstein of Silver Spring and Mary Elstein Wood of Fairfax County; a sister; five grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company