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By Anna Lothson
Val's halla Records in Oak Park isn't technically a historic landmark, but it might as well be.
And although its owner, Val Camilletti, would modestly refute the title others have bestowed upon her, she too has become a legend as the owner of a 40-year-old independent record shop that has almost as much personality as she does.
But with the holiday shopping season here, the immediate challenge is to keep Val's halla open at all as dwindling business and a considerable pile of nagging bills pose an imminent threat to survival. Supporters are rallying. A fundraiser is set for next week. If the immediate crisis is surmounted, a mid-term plan to keep Val's halla sustainable will be crafted by Val and her supporters.
It's no secret, especially to Camilletti, that the digital-era of music has overshadowed both vinyl and the bricks-and-mortar music shopping experience. While vinyl is getting new life among the younger crowds, a trend that has Camilletti excited, Val's has to face the fate many small businesses can't avoid: a stack of continuous bills.
Sue and Jim Gill, an Oak Park couple with deep musical connections and a strong sense of Val's place in the village's psyche, are heading the fundraising effort. They'll host a house party next Thursday, Dec. 13 in their Oak Park home to start the bill-denting process. The price of admission to the "Help Val Keep the Lights On" event is $100 and RSVPs are essential for planning (see box).
Those who are unable to attend the party but still wish to donate -- in any amount -- can go to a secure website to chip in to the effort (see box).
Plans to reinvigorate the legendary Oak Park Arts District store are already underway. Expanding the use of the store's small performance space and creating a new way to sell merchandise online will come in the new year. But first the effort is designed to keep the doors open (preferably with the lights on) through the critical holiday season.
Camilletti will be the first to tell you she doesn't want to pressure others, especially those in the already struggling arts community, to feel an obligation to help her shop. But friends and patrons have stepped up and told her she's got something worth keeping.
"Friends have said you have the support here and we'll prove it to you," she said. If this is true and Val's can eliminate its debt, a small increase in revenues will keep the store profitable, she says. Camilletti said she wants to continue fundraising and in turn help her small arts business neighbors.
Still, some have asked the 72-year-old Val why she wants to keep going; others have posed the concept of retirement.
"I'm not sure how to spell that word," she said. "[The shop] is so much a part of my identity. I don't know how to describe it any other way. It is even now more than ever."
Even in dim times, her passion is too strong to fade, and seeing resurgence for the industry has kept her hopeful that better days are ahead.
"I haven't been this excited for a long time. ...The idea of not doing this does not appeal to me at all," she said. "There is absolutely no reason for me to move away from this. It's a kick to talk about music."
But as any music aficionado will tell you, it's not just about the tunes. She wants to turn Val's into a destination hot spot for cultural discussions and a venue where local musicians can have their voice heard.
"We don't just talk about music," Camilletti said. "We talk about everything. It's not just about what's getting bought and sold. … I'm interested in anything. It's everything. That's part of the real joy."
The situation is far from ideal at the moment as Camilletti has a lot on her plate. But the support has given her confidence that others believe in the mission of the shop. She said they understand that it's more than just a music store, rather its part of Oak Park
"It feels absolutely incredible. It has reenergized that sense of support," she said. "I am just really touched by this effort. I'm anxious to share this vision. I think we can do it."
Her biggest cheerleaders in this effort, the Gill's, understand Camilletti's commitment to the community and they're ready to do what it takes to make Oak Park understand it too.
Jim Gill, a well-known musician himself, said the purpose of the benefit is twofold. Besides keeping the shop open, it's also about honoring Val. The thought of the shop disappearing was one he and his wife couldn't stomach.
"The store is more than a store for her," he said. "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."
Jim's first experience with the store was 16 years ago when they moved to Oak Park. Once Val knew he was a fellow resident she did what she's done with many local artists and put his music on her shelves.
"From the moment I wandered in I fell in love with that place," he said. "You can't separate falling in love with the place with falling in love with Val."
For several decades Val's halla was situated in a tiny shop (connected to a slightly larger tiny shop) on South Boulevard across the street from the Oak Park Avenue Green Line stop. When a planned redevelopment claimed that location, Val's halla moved six years ago to 239 Harrison St. in the midst of the Arts District.
As a self-proclaimed "unique musical landscape," Val's also has been a spot for local artists to get their start, many of whom have traveled back after they made a name for themselves. Honoring smaller musicians has always been a point of pride at Val's and one Jim thinks can't be found elsewhere.
Jim's love for her and the store may be the never ending font of musical knowledge Camilletti possesses, that she can answer nearly any question about music someone asks, even if it's far from her favorite artist or genre. He said he was once looking for an obscure folk group from the 1960s he'd heard on the radio and he barely got out part of the name and she was already finding the album in the store.
"It's like a little community in there. It gets to be this whole thing," he said. "Try and do that at Best Buy. People who work there aren't invested in it. … Val can't wait until she gets to the store. She loves when someone comes in with a question about music. That's why you need a store like that. She is more than just the thing that's being bought and sold. Her knowledge is unlike anything about any topic."
Val, of course, does not perceive her role as a local legend. "I guess you get old, you get famous," she joked while sitting in her store last week. "It just never really penetrated that that meant anything. It's not part of my nature to think in those terms."
For Jim Gill, though, Val is a legend who has contributed endlessly, with unwavering generosity to the community. And all music aside, that generosity of spirit is what the Gill's house party is honoring Val for.