The old blues standard “Nobody knows you when you’re down and out,” certainly doesn’t apply to Val Camiletti, owner of Val’s halla Records in Oak Park’s Arts District. With Camiletti’s 40-year old business falling on hard times, her large circle of friends, musicians and vinyl aficionados are rallying around her landmark record store.
Efforts to keep Val’s in business range from a recent sold-out “Help Val Keep The Lights On” concert fundraiser to a grass roots donation campaign on Chipin that runs through mid-January. Val needs about $55,000 to cover utilities and pay her one employee, Shayne Blakely, who has been a mainstay at Val’s for a decade.
With the push to “shop small,” Val’s halla epitomizes the difference between an independent store as opposed to a bricks-and-mortar operation. At Val’s, customers can purchase their vinyl in a place that welcomes pets, has a bona-fide Elvis shrine and boasts an owner who once worked in the Capitol Records promotions department doing everything from passing out band-aids during the Beatles’ “Help” tour to interacting with a diverse roster of entertainers including Wayne Newton, Judy Garland and others.
And while you might get a blank-faced youth at a box store, a visit with Val means a face-to-face chat with a talking encyclopedia of musical history. It’s obviously her passion but Val Camiletti is equally happy to yap about any other subject that crops up during the course of your conversation.
Now Camiletti’s been the topic of conversation and the subject of several news articles about her business. While there’s been renewed respect for records and a corresponding resurgence in sales, Val’s has been bled dry by digital downloads and a long string of rough years for independent record retailers. The move from her original location near the well-traveled Green Line corridor on South Boulevard probably didn’t help financial matters either.
The original Val’s Halla building was sold in 2006, and Val finally opted to relocate to Harrison Street rather than shutter her doors forever. One of the selling points was the fact that the new location was due west of her childhood home in the old Austin neighborhood. But Camiletti’s South Boulevard roots run equally deep—dating back to her tenure at the old Discount Records at the intersection of South Boulevard and Ridgeland.
It was during this time that Camiletti first made her mark on scores of Oak Park residents who grew up in the sixties. Joanne Ferrone recalls walking over to Discount Records with a dollar allowance and her younger brother in tow. With a musical memory that rivals Camiletti’s, Ferrone said that her first record purchase at Discount Records was “Blues Scene” by Davie Allen and the Arrows. Her brother, Jimmy, was more pedestrian and bought the Monkees “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”
Then, as now, Camiletti impressed patrons with her vast storehouse of knowledge. Ferrone noted that “you can throw anything at her and I’ve never seen her stumble.” Even back then, Camiletti represented a refreshing contrast from big box record stores like Montgomery Wards. Ferrone said that she went to Val’s “because I just liked the lady” and added “she continues to astound me.”
Ferrone is also quite appreciative of the personal touch that a proprietress like Val provides. After a record needle purchase, Ferrone noted that Camiletti was kind enough to remind her to take note of the serial number for future reference.
Now, Val needs some positive numbers to stay viable. By the same token, Oak Park needs Val’s halla Records to remain in the community. No self-respecting music lover should allow this landmark store to fall by the wayside. And no one wants to let a 72-year old local legend say “good bye” after more than 50 years in the music business. Val is ready, willing and able to take her little store to the next level. She has plans for everything from online sales to staging more concerts showcasing local artists. She just needs to get over the hump and she can—with a little help from her friends.
Think about circling over to Val’s to find a unique gift for the music lover on your list. Or, if you’re so inclined, chip in some of the money you would have spent on Twinkies to help save another icon. After all, the rush that comes from finding a long-forgotten album lasts a lot longer than a spongy snack cake.
Val’s Halla is located at 239 Harrison in Oak Park. The phone number is 708-524- 1004.