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Beloved Oak Park record store set to close

Struggling with decades of debt, Val’s halla Records is set to close at the end of November, a year after its founder and namesake died of cancer.

Val’s halla Records
Shayne Blakeley, manager of Val’s halla Records in Oak Park, announced the store, which opened in 1972, is set to close at the end of November. | Stefano Esposito, Chicago Sun-Times.

Shayne Blakeley could use a good night’s sleep.

Two-day-old whiskers sprout from his chin, and his dark, curly hair is pushed back in a stiff tangle – as if he’s spent too much time recently with his head in his hands.

“I’m going to grab my coffee because, as you can tell, I need it,” said the 38-year-old.

It’s been a tough year for Blakeley. In July 2018, Val Camilletti – the woman who 47 years ago opened the Oak Park record store Blakeley now manages – died. The fat stack of white envelopes near Val’s halla Records’ cash register offers a hint of the decades of debt Blakeley has been trying to corral.

So earlier this month, Blakeley announced the closing of a store jammed full of used LPs, 78s, CDs, cassette tapes, eight-tracks – where people of a certain age go to dust off memories of a first love, a legendary hangover, a beat-up stick shift with hand-cranked windows.

Ever since, people have been pouring in, calling Blakeley at home, wanting to know if it’s really true. Blakeley understands that much of it is about “Auntie Val,” the woman with the cloud-like coif and giant personality to match.

“When I was a lost teenager with little other than music to keep me going, Val’s halla Records was a harbor in the storm. Val herself has been a cheerleader for me and thousands of other misfits and weirdos who found shelter in her store and in so doing found a place for themselves in the world,” Caitlin Strokosch, now CEO at the National Performance Network/Visual Artists Network, wrote on Facebook when Camilletti died.

Customers still talk adoringly about Camilletti.

“Val sets this place apart. She participated in our lives, she supported us,” said Peter Moinichen, 68, thumbing through the folk music LPs on a recent visit.

“Thanks, Pete. Jeez, I’m sitting right here!” joked Blakeley, with a staccato laugh.

But Blakeley said he understands his role as keeper of what Camilletti built.

“Val taught me everything she knows,” he said. “Val’s heart, soul and personality is imbued in every square inch of this place – as it should be and always will be.”

Blakeley might be selling himself short. He has a near encyclopedic knowledge of music, having worked with Camilletti for almost two decades.

When a visitor found a copy of the “John Paul II Polka,” pulling the old 78 out of a brittle sleeve the color of tobacco leaf, he instantly recognized the artist – Vlasta and Her Altar Boys. He rushed over to a framed black-and-white photograph on a wall near the rear of the store, showing a beaming Vlasta playing a huge accordion.

And Blakeley has preserved perhaps the best-known feature of the store – a bathroom Elvis shrine that traveled with the store when it was relocated in 2006 from South Boulevard to its present home on Harrison Street. A trip to the toilet means being watched by hundreds of sets of come-hither Elvis eyes – from album covers, PEZ candy dispensers, newspaper articles and posters.

“If I had my druthers, it would be the Frank Zappa bathroom,” Blakeley said.

It’s too early, he said last week, to start thinking about dismantling the store’s memorabilia. A musician called from Canada, asking if she could buy the store’s name, he said. Camilletti named the store Val’s halla, a pun on the warrior heaven in Norse mythology.

Blakeley said there remains the slimmest of chances that someone might yet come to the rescue of the beloved store.

“It’s a pipe-dream,” he said. “I can’t give you any details. I don’t want to get people’s hopes up.”

In the meantime, as half a dozen customers silently thumbed through bins of old LPs and 45s, Blakeley said he’s looking for a new job.

“Even if I look at another record store, it’s not going to be Val’s,” he said. “I’ve been working here for a pittance because I loved her and I loved the store. Haven’t had insurance in years, and I’m working 54 to 60 hours a week. It’s a good run. Not many people get to work 20 years in their dream job. No shame there.”