Friends rally around Oak Park record store owner
Val's halla Records employee Shayne Blakeley (left) and owner Val Camilletti joke with customer Quin Kirchner of Chicago (right) at the shop December 14, 2012. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 26, 2012 2:57PM
OAK PARK — Unlike Jimmy Stewart in the classic movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Val Camiletti didn’t have a crowd of people in her foyer dumping cash into a basket Thursday. And Clarence the Angel wasn’t present.
That doesn’t mean Camiletti doesn’t have an angel or ten in her life.
Camilleti, of the venerable Val’s halla Records doesn’t like being called “a local legend.” (“That and $4 buys me a cup of coffee at Starbucks,” she grumps.)
But many of the friends she’s made over the decades disagree. Lucky for her.
At 73, and in her 41st year of business, Camiletti has faced daunting financial challenges the past several years.
Now she wants to shore up what’s always attracted her old customers, and add a few wrinkles she thinks will attract new and younger customers to her store, 239 Harrison St.
But it won’t be easy, or cheap. She’ll do it, as the classic Joe Cocker song goes, “with a little help from her friends.”
Four days before her birthday on Nov. 23, Camelleti received a letter from her attorney. She had, her lawyer opined, just two choices: file bankruptcy, or “close it all up.”
The morning of her birthday, old friend and long-time customer Sue Gill walked up to Camiletti’s table at the Buzz Café.
“She says ‘Hi,” and I just come apart,” Val recalled. “I just shattered.”
Gill listened to her friend, to all her fears and anguish about the business that is her life.
When Camiletti was finished, Gill said, “I have one really important question to ask you. Do you want to stay there (on Harrison).”
“I want to die there,” Cameletti replied.
“Then it’s time to marshall the troops,” Gill said.
“I don’t have any troops,” Cameletti protested.
“Of yes you do,” Gill replied. “You’re legendary around here.”
When Gill said she was going to organize a fundraiser to help Camiletti out with executing a new business plan, she initially scoffed at that too.
“I’m a blue collar kid from the west side of Chicago,” Camiletti said. “The idea of taking money from people for the purpose of rescuing Val’s halla, so she can just turn around and lose that money the same way we’d been doing, that comes across to me as fraud.”
Thus a day that began with utter despair ended with renewed hope and the promise of rejuvenation and transformation. Just maybe, Camiletti thought, she could be true to her values but also enhance her bottom line and help save her business, for herself and for a new generation of customers who never experienced what made her first fall in love with records. Vinyl records.
Last Thursday night, around 80 of those friends, including Bill and Kate Fitzgerald, actor John Mahoney and State Sen. Don Harmon gathered at the North Kenilworth Avenue home of Sue and Jim Gill. Each guest paid $100 to sip wine, eat fabulous appetizers, listen to jazz by the Don Sternberg Trio -- and give their favorite local legend a hug.
The Gills say the relatively small-scale party is just the start of funding efforts for Val.
“We’re looking at a bigger, more public venue,” said Sue Gill. Like, say, FitzGerald’s in Berwyn?
“I always wanted her to move next to me,” Bill FitzGerald said at the party. “We’d love to collaborate with her.”
Jim and Sue Gill’s party wasn’t the only place where loyalty and admiration for Val’s halla was evident.
As Camiletti talked behind the store counter last Wednesday, several long-time customers walked in the door.
Mary Cray had trekked over from Riverside to pick up several CDs. She’s known Camiletti “since the 1970s over on South Boulevard,” and wouldn’t buy her music anywhere else.
“You can talk to Val. And she gives you ideas,” said Cray. “It’s a personal approach, and music is a very personal thing.”
Lil Longinow of Oak Park walked up as Camiletti talked.
“It’s a wonderful life,” she said, putting a small woven basket on the counter. In it was a chocolate biscotti and a small pile of currency.
Longinow said she’d tried to arrange to go to the Gill fundraiser, but it was sold out. So she took a cue from the ending of the famous Frank Capra movie.
“It’s a wonderful life,” she repeated, “I wish we could get all those people (from the movie) here with all that money.”
Camiletti nodded her approval as she unwrapped the biscotti.
Burt Pichard-Richardson then stepped to the counter and handed Camiletti a list of vintage children’s song records he wants as presents for his grandchildren.
She looked up the titles to see what’s available, but not before taking Pichard-Richardson over to the kid’s section.
There she found an old Woody Guthrie album, “Woody’s 20 Grow Big Songs.” For just $15.50. Pichard-Richardson took it as Camiletti went online to research the other titles.
Pichard-Richardson said he does sometimes use online retailers like Amazon.com. But not to the exclusion of being able to visit Val’s halla.
“You can get anything on Amazon,” Pichard-Richardson said. “That doesn’t mean you have to get everything on Amazon.”
Clarence would approve.