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Val Camilletti dies at 78; ran Oak Park record store loved by music fans

Val Camilletti operated Val's halla records in Oak Park for 46 years. | Rich Hein, Chicago Sun-Times

Music lovers would walk into Val’s halla Records and say, “I heard this song I love, and it goes like this” — and start humming.

Owner Val Camilletti could usually figure out the artist, the label and the pressing — sometimes, instantly.

She died in hospice care early Tuesday at the British Home in Brookfield, about two years after being diagnosed with breast cancer, according to Joanne Busiel, her friend since they attended Chicago’s Austin High School. Ms. Camilletti, who lived in Cicero, was 78.

Val Camilletti, owner of Val’s halla Records in Oak Park, at her store in 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

For 46 years, Val’s halla Records — overflowing with thousands of CDs, LPs, cassette tapes, eight-tracks, 78s and 45s, from Abba to ZZ Top – has been an audiophile’s portal to another world.

It even has a shrine to Elvis in the bathroom. On the store’s website, Ms. Camilletti explained it had a “gurgling fountain, black velvet tapestry” and “multitudes of articles confirming his reincarnation.”

Her devoted customers, who preferred “Auntie Val” to Amazon, sometimes included three and four generations of families.

If Ms. Camilletti didn’t have it, she’d try and find it for you — even if it was rare or obscure. She bought and sold vinyl and offered hard-to-find turntable needles.

Val Camilletti, owner of Val’s halla Records in Oak Park, helped customer Pablo Mastache locate a needle for his turntable in 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

She held release parties for artists. Smashing Pumpkins leader Billy Corgan dropped in. So did singer John Prine, B-52s frontman Fred Schneider and actor John Mahoney, who lived near the Oak Park store, she told Mary Lucia, a host at Minnesota Public Radio.

Val Camilletti with actor John Mahoney. | Facebook photo

With her commanding alto, crisp enunciation, no-nonsense attitude and outsize nimbus of frizzy gray hair, she could have intimidated people.

But browsers were always welcome. So were teens, especially those who felt they couldn’t talk to their parents about their music, from funk to punk; from rock to rap to reggaeton.

“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,” Caitlyn Strokosch, now CEO at the National Performance Network / Visual Artists Network, wrote on Facebook. “She makes every local musician feel just as important as all the heroes whose pictures hang on her walls.”

Ms. Camilletti employed generations of kids who worked their first jobs at Val’s halla. They became a family. “She had a small army of employees” who stayed friends with their former boss and each other, said Shayne Blakeley, manager of Val’s halla. Many trooped in each year from around the country to visit and volunteer at the store’s annual anniversary sale.

Val’s current and former employees turned into a family. They gathered 12 years ago as her store on South Boulevard was preparing to move–after about 36 years–to its new location on Roosevelt Road. | Facebook photo

She presided over her land of enchantment with a dog or two for petting nearby. She named the store Val’s halla, a pun on the warrior heaven in Norse mythology. For many years, the shop was the daytime lounge of Halla, her white German shepherd, as well as other pets with Nordic names: Loki, a yellow Lab mix, and Woden the cat.

Val Camilletti’s dog Loki patrolled the floors in 2006 at her Val’s halla record store in Oak Park. | Rich Hein/Sun-Times

After Halla died at 16, she received stacks of sympathy mail. “People came in tears. They were raised by her,” she told the Sun-Times in 1995. “That thing just doesn’t happen in a mall.”

She liked to say her shop “covers every single genre that exists, from hip hop to opera and everything in between.”

“We don’t blink when someone walks in and says, ‘You wouldn’t happen to have a new Vaughn Monroe cassette, would you?’” Ms. Camilletti said in the Sun-Times interview. “And we do. Then, of course, the next person might ask for Dr. Dre, and the next one will ask for Merle Haggard.”

Val Camilletti with WXRT’s Terri Hemmert. | Facebook photo

She grew up on the West Side, the daughter of Italian immigrants Norma Mary and Quinto Camilletti. Val spoke Italian before English, she said in an interview with ChicagoGayHistory.Org.

Her factory worker dad, who was from Perugia, came to America on a boat named after an opera composer, Guiseppe Verdi. As she put it on her Facebook page: “Of course he did.”

Two of the first records she ever bought were the score for “Oklahoma!” and “Belafonte at Carnegie Hall,” she said in the interview with Lucia.

Val Camilletti, owner of Val’s halla record shop in Oak Park, outside her store in 2012. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

Three days after graduating Austin High School, she went to work for Continental Bank, she told ChicagoGayHistory.org.

It was a jolt after being raised an adored only child whose parents believed she could do anything.

At the bank, “Women couldn’t wear red. It was not acceptable because it was just a bit too vibrant, too forward,” she recalled. “Men could smoke at their desks, women could not. … the realization was — that doesn’t seem right.”

By 1962, she left the bank and went to work at the Chicago offices of Capitol Records, where she said she was thrilled to be around people who occasionally used profanity and lived outside the mainstream. She met a deejay friend who took her on her first visit to a men’s gay bar, the Orange Cockatoo, she told ChicagoGayHistory.org.

Ms. Camilletti said in the interview that she always resisted labelling, but for her, “Bisexuality fits.”

In 1968, she started managing a chain of stores, NMC Discount Records, from 723 1/2 South Blvd. in Oak Park. Four years later, she took over the flagship shop and founded Val’s halla. Ms. Camilletti operated for about 36 years at the original location, until the building was sold. Thanks to fundraising help from loyal customers, she raised thousands of dollars and relocated the store to 239 Harrison St. about 12 years ago.

She likened it to the bail-out of George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” except “My angel isn’t Clarence … I gotta band of angels.”

Val Camilletti with Beach Boy Brian Wilson. | Twitter photo

On Monday, a group she adored and championed, The Flat Five, arrived at her bedside at the British Home, Blakeley said. They serenaded Ms. Camilletti with the Beach Boys song “In My Room.”

Money remains tight and the future of the store is unknown, said Busiel, who was designated with power of attorney for Ms. Camilletti.

She is survived by her cat, Soot, in addition to her many friends, who are talking about organizing a celebration of her life. Many are expected to come out to the store’s 46th anniversary sale this weekend, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, featuring live music and good vibes.

Blakeley predicted, “It’s going to be a love-in.”

Record store owner Val Camilletti loved animals. | Facebook photo