Mary Lucia: a chat with Val Camilletti of Val's Halla Records

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Val Camilletti of Val's Halla Records
Val Camilletti, owner of Val's Halla Records in Oak Park, Ill. (Luke Taylor | MPR)

Val Camilletti is the owner of Val's Halla Records, a record store located in Oak Park, Ill., just outside of Chicago. In July of this year, Val's Halla Records will mark 45 years in business. Prior to working in record stores, Camilletti worked at major label Capitol Records.

Mary Lucia connected with Val Camilletti for a chat about music and about record-store culture. Here's their conversation:

What was the first record you bought with your own money?

Any music I ever bought would have been with my own money, because recorded music was not a part of my parents' world. I'm not exactly sure about the very first, but the soundtrack from Oklahoma!, which I saw as a movie in 1956 would have been one of the earliest, and I have a clear memory of buying Belafonte at Carnegie Hall at Rose Records in downtown Chicago (my personal mecca) — it's still one of my favorite records of all time.

You've moved locations of the record store a couple times; clearly this is more than a business to you. How much of your personal identity is wrapped up in the store?

I only moved once from the location at 723½ South Blvd in Oak Park, where I began selling records 50 years ago come September. For five years, from 1967 until 1972, I ran that store, which grew into a small chain with stores in Illinois and Wisconsin. I didn't own those stores, but when the chain folded in 1972, I was able to re-open that Oak Park location as Val's Halla — we were only closed for two weeks, so to this day, I have customers who never realized they were in a different store. The only move came 39 years later when we moved to our current location at 239 Harrison, in the Oak Park Arts District, in 2006. But all told, Val's Halla Records opened 45 years ago in July.

I am the store and the store is me. We are ONE.

Not unlike radio, record stores have been competing against people's alternative sources of gathering music. There's something old-school with the tradition of making the trip to Val's Halla and digging through crates. How has that translated to you finding younger customers?

The resurgence of vinyl has certainly re-invigorated a passion for music that differs from the "download" mentality, which is based on single-song listening as opposed to album exploration. My customer age range has always consisted of listeners from pre-teen to octogenarian because of the stock that I carry, but for 12- to 14-year-olds, it's really more because it's a fad. The real appreciation for albums kicks in with mid-teens, and that is pure joy for me because it's more than just the impact of a song — rather, the impact of an artist's life work.

What makes an interesting record store clerk to you?

One characteristic above all others: An overwhelming curiosity to find an answer no matter how long it takes. We have countless stories about customers who say, "It's OK, it's not really that important," and for me and for my best employees over the years, what comes out of our mouths is, "Oh no, you're not leaving until we find the song." It doesn't matter whether you buy it, it only matters that we find the answer.

The profession that it most resembles is that of a reference librarian or a detective — I don't expect employees to know everything about music, but I expect them, and myself, to be able to find out anything.

What band that has emerged in the last 10 years has grabbed your attention that you are a fan of?

A local "supergroup" that has captured my heart — The Flat Five. Here's a video of a CD release event with them at the store last October:

You have an impressive Elvis Presley shrine in your restroom, appropriately.

The Elvis shrine was the brainchild of one of my more eccentric employees many years ago, who one day said, "We lost him in the bathroom, we need to have a shrine." I thought it was a funny idea, but that no one would ever even notice — then it got featured on Wild Chicago, a TV show, and the word spread. When we moved to our current location in 2006, it was the only thing customers asked us: "Are you gonna bring the Elvis shrine?"

Did you ever meet Elvis?

No, I never met him. Saw him once in his later incarnation, just because I thought I should. I really only loved him one night in his career — the 1968 comeback special, which I recommend to every rock 'n' roll fan.

Describe record-store culture in three words.

Life-affirming. Eclectic. Passion. I guess I needed four words!

When record collectors come in to sell, have you ever had to keep specific albums for yourself?

Never — I worked at Capitol Records from 1962 to 1967, and that's the only time when I experienced the "kid in a candy store" feeling. For the past 50 years, the real kick is matching up that obscure gem with the customer who lights up when they see it.

Who is the most famous person to come into your store, and what did they buy?

I suppose the most famous regular is John Mahoney; he's been a gazillion movies and he played Frasier's dad on TV. We share a love of obscure artists and Noel Coward. But tons of others have passed through here, from Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins to Fred Schneider of the B-52's, and of course, one of my favorite customers from long ago was John Prine, who used to hang out all the time when he was a young 'un.

Actor John Mahoney
Actor John Mahoney (Brad Barket/Getty Images)

If you could choose any song to be played any time you enter the room, which would you choose?

A Noel Coward song, from way before your time called, "If Love Were All": "I believe that since my life began, the most I've had is just a talent to amuse."

Resources


Val's Halla Records

Village of Oak Park

Capitol Records

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  • Val's Halla Records
    Val's Halla Records in Oak Park, Ill. (Luke Taylor | MPR)

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