The period of the early to mid-1970s was an exciting time for rock music in America. It was pretty cool here in Oak Park, too. Like today, we had excellent records stores in the area.
There was a record shop on Lake Street just east of Oak Park Avenue called Little’s, which I started frequenting when I was 11. Little’s was located where Fuego Loco is now, and was next door to Cunningham & Reilly, a decent sporting-goods store that was nothing like the huge ones that are prevalent these days.
Little’s was a traditional record store where the proprietor worked a high counter, standing on a walkway that was elevated above the customers. Kind of like a giant graciously helping the diminutive ones. (Must be the customary design for record stores.)
The place was spacious, as was necessary when bulky LPs and their offspring 45s comprised a record store’s stock. In addition to records, Little’s sold posters and T-shirts. You could grab a huge photo of Wishbone Ash for your wall or a “Keep on Truckin'” shirt to cover your back. I was a bit young for either of those.
Little’s would give you a card every time you bought a record, and when you collected eight of these, you’d get a free LP. I would ride my bike there and cruise home full of joy and anticipation, hoping that the new disk was really good. After all, this was money that was hard-earned by mowing, raking or shoveling.
At some point, someone told me about Val’s halla Records, then located on South Boulevard, east of Oak Park Avenue (now on Harrison). I was 12 when I first went into Val’s, and I immediately noticed that it differed greatly from Little’s. Val’s was smaller, darker and more mysterious. The smell of incense filled the air. The customers were much cooler than those at Little’s; they were older teens and young adults with long hair. The store was so narrow that you had to be careful not to bump into these radical folks. That day, I bought Living in the Material World by George Harrison (passing up Can’t Buy a Thrill by Steely Dan).
I’ve been going to Val’s ever since, even though I also shop at the other area record stores because I hunt down specific used CDs. Similar to how Little’s was designed back then, with the elevated counter and walkway, most local record stores these days are set up in the same manner. Oak Park Records, Chicago Digital and The Old School all have owners or clerks who kind of tower above you.
These are all valued stores where I will always shop. But when I think back to the things that made Val’s unlike Little’s, and continue to make it unique, one thing that stands out was that Val and her clerks were on the same level as the customer – “down to earth” people who “walked among us.” I don’t know if that was a conscious decision on the part of Val, but it may be one of the reasons that I keep returning to that old but new record store.
Mark Dwyer, a 32-year resident of Oak Park, is a grants coordinator for village hall and a bassist currently between bands.