Val Camilletti deserves all the good said about her in the wake of her passing last week.  She was a tremendous person for her kindness as much as her influence and knowledge. I can only add my own admiration to what has already been said.

So let’s talk about Val’s Halla instead.

This “little” record store was a giant in the field.  It epitomizes all the things we study in business school: brand, vision, service, core values, product, tribe, differentiation.  If there was any shortcoming from a capitalist perspective, it was inability to scale. Sure, the shop itself could get bigger or smaller as the industry changed.  But there could be only one Val’s Halla.

There was only one Val.

When we talk about small business in our community, what we usually mean is independent boutique business.  We like the convenience of national brands and want them closeby. But we treasure the indies. Thriving independent small business ranks among our community values, right alongside diversity, schools, housing, green space, transportation and affordability.  Convenient commercial districts are an amenity for our residents. It’s the Independent small business that adds community character.

If “small business is hard,” then “independent small business” is herculean.  All risk is absorbed by one store, product, restaurant or service. The owner typically mitigates risk by being involved in all aspects of the operation.  Capricious customers, changing economies and disrupted industries call for constant nimbleness, investment and creativity if the business is to withstand multiple economic cycles.

Sometimes the owner embodies the business so much so that s/he becomes inseparable from it.  The business reflects the uniqueness of the owner. We come to know and love the business as the person and the person as the business.  This is not always a sustainable or even a profitable model – but this is our romanticized version of what small independent business should be.   These owners are our local heroes: true independents who become legends; legends not measured by profit but by character and perseverance.

Godspeed to our fallen hero, surely on route to Valhalla accompanied by the valkyries sent to claim her.  May Val’s independent spirit prevail.

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Cathy Yen

Cathy Yen is the Executive Director of the Oak Park River Forest Chamber of Commerce.  She has lived in Oak Park for 21 years and done business locally, first as a retailer and then as a small business...

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