Oak Park record store owner celebrates 40 years
Val's Halla Records celebrates 40 years in business and owner Val Camilletti's 50th anniversary in the music business. Val talks to a customer by one of the Beatles posters in the store. | Tamara Bell~Sun Times Media
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Where: Val’s Halla Records, 239 Harrison St., Oak Park
When: All day Saturday, July 28 and Sunday, July 29
Live music: starts at 11 a.m. Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday.
Updated: December 17, 2012 4:39PM
OAK PARK — Talking with Val Camilletti of Val’s Halla about her half century in the music business brings to mind the legendary Jerry Garcia.
“What a long, strange trip it’s been,” Garcia famously sang of his early Grateful Dead experience.
“It has been a strange trip,” replied Camilletti, a local legend in her own right. An often happy trip, a sometimes difficult one. But one filled with the joy and satisfaction of myriad musical styles and music.
Camilletti doesn’t merely love music, she lives and breathes it. Tastes it between her ears, like a wine lover might swirl a glass, though with less pretension.
She’s never stopped exploring, never stopped being in awe of the myriad sounds humans can make with their voices and other instruments.
“From Oratorio to hip hop,” as she puts her range of musical appreciation.
Fair warning: don’t ask her about a particular musician unless you’re prepared to be schooled in detail. Her knowledge is encyclopedic, her passion for the subject a joyful abyss you’re welcome to drop into with her.
On July 28-29, as she’s done since 1976, Camilletti will invite the village of Oak Park and beyond into her store to celebrate another year of musical passion, listen to live music and, hopefully, buy a record or two or three.
This year marks a number of benchmark anniversaries — 40 years of Val’s Halla, 45 years in the record store business and 50 years in the music industry.
For 34 years Camilletti — and Halla the dog and Wodin the cat — held court at the utterly unique and funky hole in the wall at 734 ½ South Blvd.
People were free to browse for hours if they liked. Camilletti would answer any question, and the very few she couldn’t she’d look up in her voluminous set of reference books.
For the past six years, she’s been ensconced in larger but equally funky quarters at 239 Harrison, in the Harrison Arts District.
Quality, comfort in LPs
Camilletti is surrounded by boxes of records as she sits on the edge of the stage area, her legs resting on another stack, as she talks in her store.
For Camilletti the song remains the same, even if the songs themselves are always changing.
“In some ways it’s not any different than 40 years ago,” she said. “You still get people walking up to the counter saying, ‘Music isn’t as good as it used to be.”
She laughs and shakes her head. “I have heard that same line for 45 years. That very same line.”
And as someone who’s lived through the introduction of every musical reproductive technology except etched cylinders, Camilletti is an unwavering adherent of the turntable and the vinyl record.
While she disagrees that music isn’t as good as it once was, she emphatically believes the music technology of old is far superior to modern digital technology.
Digitized music, particularly compressed MP 3 and 4 files, she said, lacks both the top third and bottom third of the sound found in old analog recordings, particularly those prior to 1990.
“A note of music, a sound, is a wave,” she said. “If you convert that (wave) digitally, you’re doing it mathematically. You do that by pinpointing the very center of the sound.”
“The very center of a note is exactly what that compressed digital note is.”
But it’s not what the musician played.
Now, while the halcyon days of the 1960s and ’70s are gone, some parts of her experience have come full circle, validating her love of tone and texture of all types of music.
“We’re back to vinyl, in a way we haven’t been in 20 years,” she said. “Every new indy artist and many old punk and rock artists are re-releasing LPs.”
Though Val’s Halla is a holdover, it’s not mired in the past.
“We’re not dinosaurs,” she said. “We sell stuff on line. We’re on the internet all day, working it.”
She’d like it to be different, to be easier, but she embraces business reality.
“We understand it’s easier to shop in your pajamas at 2 a.m.” she said. “It’s hard to fight that.”
And while Camilletti took a different road than most so long ago, she feels she never strayed from her core values.
“In my heart of hearts, if I’d have had the education for it and pursued it, I’d have wanted to be in one of two professions,” she said. “A reference librarian or a teacher.”
“In my own way, in my little cocoon, I get to be both of those things,” she said.
Both, she said, are wrapped up, in their own fashion, in her record store.
“That drive to find the answer, long after the customer has said, ‘It’s OK.’ That’s the reference librarian (in me),” she said. “And the teacher part, that’s all I do here.”
“If I can find the connection between (a certain) artist and someone else they might want to hear,” she said, “I’m in my glory.”
Camilletti is also grateful to Oak Park and the tens of thousands of people who’ve walked through her doorway over the decades.
“The only reason I’m still here is because Oak Park could support this,” she said.
Camilletti’s sole employee, Shayne Blakeley, is also celebrating a benchmark anniversary: 10 years working with Val.
Though “employee” doesn’t capture Blakeley’s role in Val’s Halla.
“I think it’s mine,” he said. “That’s very much how I feel about it. ” Camiletti laughs approvingly.
As for Val, “She’s been kind of like a second mother to me,” he said. “A very close and comfortable friend.”
“We make it work,” Camilletti said, smiling.
Camilletti and Blakeley are expecting a few hundred of her many friends to trek to Harrison Street next weekend, when the store becomes a music club.
While she’s spent her life in the midst of thousands of records, it’s live performances that make Camilletti swoon.
For the store’s 40th celebration, Val’s Halla will host a remarkable mix of musical talent, ranging from a jazz trio led by former Pez Band guitarist John Pazdan to the multi-talented duo of Scott Ligon and Casey McDonough. Ligon is a current member of NRBQ, among other musical endeavors.
All that music will be created on a stage no bigger than a walk-in closet. Ambiance simply becomes irrelevant, the music everything.