Val Camilletti sold us the soundtrack of our lives

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By Ken Trainor

Staff Writer

Though she lived in Cicero and grew up in Austin, for many people Val Camilletti, 78, was the most recognized face in Oak Park. An institution and vibrant presence in the village for the past 50 years, she died on July 24, 2018 at the end of a two-year battle with breast cancer.

More than anything else, she was associated with music, beginning in the late 1960s when she ran record stores on Ridgeland near Lake Street, 723½ South Blvd. (near Oak Park Avenue), and finally 239 Harrison St. in the Oak Park Arts District. She started in vinyl and ended in vinyl, the majority of her sales reverting to used records by the end, as a new generation rediscovered LPs.

Her store, Val's halla Records was a play on Valhalla from Norse mythology — as were the names of her dog, Halla, her cat, Woden, and Halla's successor, Loki, who were omnipresent. For many customers, it was indeed a kind of mythical paradise, especially during rock 'n' roll's heyday of the 1960s and 1970s. It was the place to go, and kids flocked there. As those baby boomers grew older, they stayed loyal even though the music industry changed dramatically with digital technology — including the late John Mahoney, who was a regular customer, during his long tenure in Oak Park.

Val was the constant. Her knowledge was encyclopedic and her storytelling abilities wide-ranging, which made frequenting her establishment more than a shopping experience. It even included a shrine to Elvis for those who felt the need to pay their respects.

Val was a regular at George's Restaurant in the morning. She was in charge of the music during the May Madness street fests on Oak Park Avenue during the 1990s and early 2000s. She emceed the Church of Beethoven concerts at Open Door Theatre. She even penned a regular entertainment column and blog for Wednesday Journal for a time.

But Val's halla wasn't the institution — she was, with her gravelly voice and big glasses and bushy gray hair. You couldn't miss her. But we're missing her now. 

In 2012, when those music industry changes took a toll on her business, it looked as if the shop might have to close, but the community rallied to her. Children's musician Jim Gill and his wife Sue threw a benefit concert at their house, which raised enough to "keep the lights on."

"From the moment I wandered in," Jim Gill said at the time, "I fell in love with that place. You can't separate falling in love with the place from falling in love with Val. The store is more than a store for her. It really embodies all she knows about music. Val's is a place where music is more than bought and sold. I don't think the community is ready to give that up."

Val was 72 at the time, but she wasn't ready for retirement.

"I'm not sure how to spell that word," she said. "[The store] is so much a part of my identity. I don't know how to describe it any other way. We don't just talk about music. We talk about everything. I'm interested in anything. That's part of the real joy."

Andy Mead knew her as both an employee and a friend, which pretty much went hand in hand.

"If you spent time at the store," he recalled, "you either became a friend or you were scared of her. She had a big echo. She was like human musical Velcro. She could talk about everything from Maria Callas to the Beatles, from film to food. If you talked to her, you talked for 45 minutes. Music was her lifeblood."

Mead worked at the store from 1988 to 1998 and "we very quickly became friends. I was 23 and she was 48, but we combined well." Mead is the long-time advertising design manager for Wednesday Journal, Inc. 

Working for her was like everything about her: "Very intense. If you collided with Val, you didn't forget it. She stuck with you. She was demanding, hilarious, generous, passionate, charming and loud. If you could roll with that intense interaction, you became a lifetime customer. It was like working in a family. She was a friend, not a boss."

Val Camilletti grew up in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago, graduated from Austin High School, then moved to Oak Park for a while before finally settling in Cicero. After a short stint with a bank, she landed a job with Capitol Records on Michigan Avenue in 1962, doing record promotion, working with radio stations, organizing sock hops, etc. Two years later, the Beatles landed. It was the craziest time to be part of the record industry, but she passed up her one chance to meet the Liverpudlians when her boss went to pick them up at the airport for their concert at Comiskey Park in 1965. He asked if she wanted to go and she said no.

"She hated all the screaming," Mead said. "If she couldn't hear them, she didn't want to go. She said she had no regrets."

In 1967, she started working for NMC Discount Records, a chain that had a store in Oak Park. Val managed the various stores, but when they went out of business in 1972, Val took over the Oak Park shop on Ridgeland, which soon moved to South Boulevard and became Val's halla. She moved to Harrison Street in 2006.

"She weathered everything from the Big Box stores to the internet," Mead said, as record stores everywhere were closing. "It was the force of her personality. She just pushed through. That store was her and she was the store."

But she also had a full life outside.

"She loved kids and animals," Mead said. "She was a huge advocate for the Animal Care League for many years, emceeing their annual auction. She loved golf and played at Columbus Park just a couple of weeks before she went in the hospital.

"She lived fully. She told me about one weekend in the '70s when she went to see David Bowie, the opera, and a rodeo, all in one weekend. She could span all that. She was very involved in the folk scene in the 1950s and early '60s. John Prine used to come in the store and show her his latest record. She knew Steve Goodman.

"As one friend put it, 'She was always cool.' She didn't show her age. I forgot she was 78."

As for her store, Shayne Blakeley, her right-hand man for the past 17 years, is planning to go ahead with the annual Valpalooza sale and music fest this Saturday and Sunday at 239 Harrison. Friends, meanwhile, are planning a Celebration of Life event in the near future. Stay tuned.

Back in 1997, for a special section we did on the 25th anniversary of Val's halla Records, I asked her if she were going to sing a song at a Karaoke bar, which would it be. Her reply was telling.

"'If Love Were All' by Noel Coward, one of my favorite songs of all time. It has one great verse: 'I believe that since the world began, the most I've had is just a talent to amuse. Hey, ho, if love were all, I would be lonely.'"

But as one on Oak Park's most recognizable people, she was seldom alone for long.

Of her local renown she once said, "I guess you get old, you get famous. It just never really penetrated that that meant anything. It's not part of my nature to think in those terms."

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