When I recently sat down with Val Camilletti in the back office of her record store, I thought we were going to talk about the staying power of her four decade-old brand, the influence of social media on her small, but locally iconic business, and especially about her participation in this Saturday's Record Store Day event.
Silly me. Give Val the floor, and the story will find you. Not the other way round. This woman goes her own way and that has been the key to her business for (nearly) half her lifetime despite the fact that you probably download most of the music in your possession. Big box stores and digital downloads aside, Val's Halla Records at 239 W. Harrison Street in Oak Park, IL still stands like a brick and mortar shrine to many-a-local's youth spent browsing the crates of vinyl records, shelves of CDs, DVDs and an impressive collection of gaming classics.
But, don't tell Val she was your hero in your teenage years or is a village icon in Oak Park. "You live long enough, you get famous," Val is famous for saying. At age 72, she shrugs unimpressed. And don't lay it on thick about the heady, nostalgic flashbacks you experience while wandering up and down the aisles past Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Kingbees. Don't tell her how much she meant to you and your friends hanging out in her record store during the years of your misspent youth. Or at least, prepare yourself for a reply you may not have anticipated.
"I used to buy records from you 30 years ago! You and your store meant so much to me!," you exclaim as you breath deep the smell of vinyl LPs and gaze longingly at the vintage posters and treasures from music history wall-papering the interior of this Oak Park Arts District shop. You humbly await the glowing recognition you deserve and desire.
"Yeah?" Val dryly asks. "So why haven't you bought any music in the last 30 years?" You tell her of course you've bought music! You buy all kinds of music. You tell her how many Gigs of music you have on your Mac at home and what's playing on your iPod shuffle right now. Yikes. Wrong answer.
So, how much did all that music cost you, do you figure? Val would like to know how much money you did not spend at your "hero's" independent record store over the last 3 decades. You (and by "You", I mean me) stand dumb-struck before this much loved, highly praised local business owner who like many small business owners across the country is just trying to keep the lights on in this economy.
"So, hey," I deftly change the subject, "tell me about Record Store Day!" In case you are unfamiliar with this fabulous holiday, it is an international day of support for independent music shops. (http://recordstoreday.com for more details). This year's Record Store Day on April 21 is the fifth annual.
Val graciously accepts my invitation to talk about this unique marketing campaign. "It was really a great idea," said Val. "The people who designed this, the whole Record Store Day idea, really were very, very diligent. The idea is to draw people in to have a fun day and to honor independent record stores. Not chains. Just independent record stores who were still out there."
Camilleti conceded that the first year was somewhat chaotic but still widely successful thus garnering attention from big names musicians as well as recording companies. "And they [Record Store Day events] have been increasingly more successful. And they've done a great job of - you talk about branding - Record Store Day has done great job of branding. They have constantly, constantly reminded people of what this day is supposed to be about."
Our conversation moved through the evolution of Record Store Day and it's part in the renewed popularity of vinyl recordings. She talked about the new interest of her younger customers, particularly teenagers. She explained how they are discovering older music and artists (i.e., iconic album artists such as Pink Floyd who are still a staple for older collectors) and how today's teens are actually experiencing music in a manner very similar to the way she and her peers did in the 50s.
"The internet and download format is the accepted way of introducing new music to the world. At the same time, and it's one of those wonderful ironies that exist in this whole online phenomenon, the entire industry right now is exactly what it was like when I was fifteen years old almost sixty years ago."
She explains, "Back then, you bought a bunch of 45s, and you put them on a spindle just like you do now with an iPod, and you played a song. You didn't care so much who the individual artist was, or what they ate, or whose cousin they were, or whatever. The interest was all about the song. Period."
We talked about the development of albums - defining them as an arrangement of songs which collectively tell a story - and how classic album artists entered our musical lexicon in the late 60s into the mid-advent of CDs.
"That's when music became about so much more than just listening to the top forty songs that you listened to or danced to or whatever. The album became a story format with a beginning, middle and end, and as a vehicle for fleshing out all of an artist's or group's musical ideas. It was for you teenagers … well, you knew everything about the band and their lives as well as knowing all about the songs themselves. That was your whole world. "
Val chuckles and admits she's been quoted many times as saying that in the late sixties and all during the seventies, "I got every disposable penny except for a pair of jeans and a lid of pot. Everything else came to me. I was The Identity."
Now I don't know nuthin 'bout no lid of pot, but she got every disposable penny I owned from 1974-1981, when I moved away from Oak Park. And what's more, I was also one of those fifteen year olds who dreamed of occupying a world like Val's … back in the day. But, she already knew that about me and every other kid from my neighborhood.
As if I were reliving a scene from my own history, familiar sounds of chatter and music drifted in from the front of the store as Val compared her environment to that of independent book stores of the 1930s & 40s.
"People would walk into book store - teenagers - would walk into a book store in those years. A place like Stuart Brents on Michigan Avenue - and as teenagers they would marvel and think, 'Someday, I could own a place like this, and all I would do would be sit around and read books!' Well, in the sixties and seventies, that was a record store. If you were fifteen years old, and you walked in my store in 1975, you dreamt that someday you could own a place like this and all you would do all day would be sit around and listen to music."
She paused. "Those days are gone." The sound of the Shins on vinyl playing on the turntable at the counter suddenly sounded as archaic as a Smith-Corona type writer. Those days are gone. I felt my world shift uncomfortably.
But, it seemed to me that my own sense of nostalgia and maybe a little loss were the only such feelings in the back office housing various music memorabilia and filing cabinets decorated with Wilco bumper stickers. Val is too pragmatic for that. She continues to assess the history and study the present of her profession.
"There is a love affair with vinyl by a lot of young people, but it's completely different than when you were a kid," Val indicates, pointing at me. "Their way of communicating with the world is online, via social media, via streaming video, online magazines, youTube. And I can't fight the wonder of technology. All I can hope to do is encompass as much of it as I can."
She states this casually with total appreciation and understanding of how times and technology change. There is no hint of bitterness or suspicion which one might expect to hear from folks "of a certain age" who adjusted to and adopted the internet rather than grew up with it. "Now the owning of records and the playing of records which has come back to fruition is exciting. But, it represents a minuscule number of people in real numbers."
Our chat floats back to the idea of what an album means and how it has changed. She recalls an interview she read in which Lindsey Buckingham's teenage son reacted with a big, "Whatever" to his dad's fuss over the precise arrangement of songs on one of his albums. Again, she notes that what was old (not just vinyl records themselves) is new again - meaning that the "download generation" is by and large interested in individual songs, as she was in her youth. While at the same time, those young people who are discovering vinyl are buying LPs as a means of discovering a "new way" to listen to albums.
"The young people who are interested in vinyl are talking about them in the same way teenagers talked about them in the sixties and seventies. They don't want greatest hits LPs. They want the original Dark Side Of The Moon. They are talking again about bands the way you all did … knowing everything about the music, about the band, what they eat, what they wear, who the drummer is related to, what time they go to the bathroom," she grins.
"What it [the resurgence of record sales in recent years] has made possible," Camilletti says with clear appreciation, "is for a store like mine to NOT go out of business." And that, she firmly believes, is not just good for her but good for the community and economy of her beloved Oak Park.
Then we preached for a while to our own small business owners' choir about how vital we are to our local economies - whether our business is that of selling records or designing and developing websites - and how to leverage social media to encourage locals to shop in our stores or support our services. We agree that we are pleased with events such as Record Store Day and Small Business Saturdays because they acknowledge the economic contributions of us - mom & pop shops - to the GNP.
And here's when I felt Val had something she'd like to express, to get off her chest.
"It's fascinating. You know, there's this page on Facebook called Growing Up In Oak Park. And people are constantly putting up pictures of old grocery stores, old candy stores, stories about Ascension, stories about Emerson." She points these out knowing I attended both these grammar schools.
"And the people who are posting are, ya know, " she points at me, "people of a certain age. And when something closes, or when something is not the way it was, it isn't going away because those people have been supporting it day in and day out for the last 15, 25, 35, 40 years." Most likely, she posits, they haven't been supporting those institutions at all, or very little over the years.
She rightly acknowledges that we all are "guilty" of taking advantage of the convenience of big box stores, that we are all busy trying to juggle the complexities of life. She understands that shopping on Amazon in the middle of the night in one's pajamas can be easy and comfy.
But there is a serious conflict here. People still feel upset when a business or school or familiar landmark in their town is shuttered or forced to move.
Several times a week, Val estimates, she has more or less the same conversation with customers in her store or villagers when she runs into them around town. She retells a few typical encounters of folks who express heart-felt concern about the time (now six years ago) that changes in the village zoning made it necessary for her well-known shop to relocate from its original home on South Boulevard to the current location in the Harrison Street Art District. Despite concerns from older patrons who loved the narrow, hallway-like feel of the old place, she is content with the larger retail space and her fellow artsy neighbors. Besides, it was six frick'n years ago. C'mon already.
She also fields complaints laced with praises describing how this or that shopper went all over town, even buying unintended, but too-good-to-pass-up CDs at Best Buy while shopping for a specific album … and how he or she eventually wound up in Val's Halla where (lo and behold) the desired CD was (of course!) in stock.
Yes, people give her all of their "legend" stories as she calls them. "You know: 'No one else has such special stuff. No one else has this in stock. Only you, Val, because you're so special.' And they go on and on and on about what a legend I am and how much my store meant to them when they were kids." She smiles at me, friendly, genuinely, but all too knowingly.
"But, you're really, really concerned that I stay in business because I meant SOOOOO much to you when you were growing up here, right?" Go ahead and take your foot out of your mouth now. I had to when I said it. Val is used to it. Well, sort of. The typical response, she tells me, is "Oh my gosh, I never thought of it that way."
Val admits to having had the "bigger is better" mentality when it comes to shopping at a national chain. She tells the story of going to buy dog food for her white German Shepard mix, Halla, when the local Target opened years ago. But all she found there were 2 varieties in 30 lbs. bags - not what she wanted. Finally, she went to Gus', a small, family owned grocer, and found many varieties in 3 lbs bags. "And I went, DUH!" Smacks forehead. "We're all guilty of that from time to time: thinking bigger means better selection."
The other guilt we all share, she states, is that we all get upset when our world changes, a place like Gus' goes out of business after years of familiarity to us. Val shakes her head and sighs, "And I understand that. Because it's our world that's been disrupted. When something we loved and experienced changes, our world is shifted. But, when it's your store," she stops to steady herself, "it hurts like hell."
"And it can almost bring me to tears when I've been overdrawn at the bank for 5-6 days , and I hear people tell me how much I meant to them."
She deeply appreciates the compliment that she has made a difference in people's lives, in their relationship to music over the years. "If I haven't made a difference in people's lives with respect to music," Val ponders, "then what have I been doing since I started out at Capital Records fifty years ago?! That's what it's all about, more than the sales."
However, we (and by we I mean me) have bought our music elsewhere. That doesn't make sense. Some change we relish. New technology, new gadgets, new conveniences. And yet, we don't really want the landscape of our memory banks to change, Val insists. We don't want the experiences of our past to be altered by others. But, we don't necessarily stop, and think to do something about it such as shop locally at the independent businesses that we loved or grew up in.
So, what can a small business owner do if she doesn't want to fall into the trap, as Val describes it, of blindly believing that she is so important to her customers and her community that she needs nothing more to stay afloat? Camilletti lists three essentials that have been the core of her business philosophy since day one.
•You can continue to promote what it is you do.
•You can continue to try to do it better.
•And you must keep the communication ALIVE and lively
It's the force of personality, as Val calls it. I call it the authenticity of her brand. Val's personality is to engage her customers whether in her store or on Facebook. She uses social media as a means to engender those human feelings of wanting to share, wanting "talk over the backyard fence," as she puts it. She loves to tell a story and hear your story.
So share with her on Facebook, please. (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Vals-halla-Records/112525402097980). Ask her questions. Share your memories and photos. She does love to communicate.
But then stop and think about how and where you want to buy music and movies next time you do.
Because while she embraces technology at the same time she sells a mostly nostalgic product, she believes nothing beats a face to face visit to Val's Halla Records if you're in the mood for music. Or visit Val for a recommendation about where to eat in the area, where to go to hear live music, landmarks you should see, where to buy a stamp, whatever. As she states on her (soon to be updated by us) website, "I will do my best to search for that impossible-to-find song or album, or to answer that no one knows what I'm talking about question."
Her mission is to have the highest percentage of customer satisfaction of any store in the country meaning she and her staff will work hard to answer any inquiry that comes their way - whether music related or not. The one to one relationship with her customers and her community makes a difference. She candidly admits, "It's the only reason that I'm still here. The only reason. It's helped by this renewed interest in vinyl, but it's keeping these one to one connections that keep us in business. And that is the only way I want to do business."
As we walked back to the front of the store to say our good-byes, I had to flip through the stacks to find the item on my shopping list (of course she had it), a British release of The Beatles Revolver for my husband. When we were kids growing up in this neighborhood, my husband told his grandmother all he wanted for Christmas was Revolver. Not knowing there is a difference, his grandmother proudly presented him with records by The Monkees. A wrong righted after 40 years. And after hanging with this dear lady for a couple of hours, talking all things music and Oak Park, I know I will call her to order the latest One Direction CD for my soon to be 13 year old daughter - and pick it up in person from Val's Halla Records. And you bet I'll be there for Record Store Day.
Please visit the new website we just delivered to Val, and let us know what you think of it.