It's very seldom that I'm at a loss for words. For anyone that knows me, they know that words are something that I love. They're a personal passion of mine. It's apparent in my writing, my podcasting and even in my choice of profession as a customer service representative. I talk and write for a living as well as a hobby. The only time I'm not volleying my vocabulary, is when I'm sleeping and I've been told that even then I'm still as verbose, however incoherent it may be. Today, all my words escape me. Today, I lost not only a friend, but a family member, a mentor and one of the biggest hearts I've ever known. It's not just me that's feeling the loss, as we all shared a connection and a bond with the amazing Val Camilletti. She was a true original and to call her one of a kind would be selling her short. When she came into this world, they broke the mold. There never was and never will be another one quite like her. People always ask if working in a record store is like 'Empire Records' or 'High Fidelity' and the reality is, it kind of is. At least some aspects are the same. This is my journey. One that I took with Val that lead me on a crazy adventure where I learned who I was and grew up surrounded by a family bonded by love and music.
When my story began with Val, it was 1993 and I was a 19 year old college Freshman. I was new to the area and had just moved from Kansas City Missouri to River Forest to attend Concordia University. My goal was to become a high school teacher, majoring in art and English. On a day like any other, I made my way to a little record store located directly across from the 'El' platform known as Val's Halla Records. I'd heard this song on the radio and couldn't get it out of my head. I was hoping to track down a copy of the cassette and had seen a colorful postcard in my welcome packet at school and decided that this was the place to track it down. When I walked in the door, I was taken aback at the sheer overwhelming visual onslaught of sights and sounds that flooded my eyes and ears. Behind the counter, was none other than Val herself and Andy. They immediately welcomed me to the store and asked if they could help me find something. At this point, after hearing the song on Q101 several times, I mistakenly heard the name of the band as 'Cleft of Soul'. Andy jumped into action and began to browse the various written resource materials that were littered about the counter top and then moved to the giant phone book like index that seemed to be a catalog of everything ever recorded. Remember, these were the days before Google, as the internet was barely even a blip on anyone's radar. After questioning me further and not having any luck in locating this band, I got the spiel that perhaps the album wasn't out yet or it was a local group that didn't have much distribution. Feeling a bit crestfallen, I wandered the stacks of CD's, cassettes and records and eventually left, empty handed. After some time had passed, I finally came to know that the band was called Collective Soul and the song was 'Shine'. After purchasing the cassette from Val at a later date, I began to become a more frequent visitor to the store and despite being a little intimidated by Val, I never the less began to feel at home.
As my college career continued, soon it was 1995. While spending another afternoon between classes at the store, I found out that there was a job opening and hesitantly applied. At this point in my life, my music diet was fed mainly by the radio and the first batch of cassettes from Columbia House, that I'm not sure I ever paid for. Despite all of that, Val saw something in me and I was hired. Now, as a college kid who's creative and wanting to find his place in the world, this was like winning the lottery. Everybody wants that cool job that your friends are envious of. We all wanted to be record store employees. My days there, slowly turned into months and then into years. I devoured every piece of knowledge that Val would bestow upon me. I learned about every genre of music imaginable. She instilled in me a work ethic and the groundwork for what makes for excellent customer service. All along the way, providing me with valuable life lessons that you can't learn in a book or in school. I learned more in those first few years at Val's, then I ever learned in all of my years of higher education. It wasn't just from Val though. All of the people she surrounded herself with, fed my eager mind and gave me the tools to be more than I ever could have been otherwise. I even learned things that I didn't know were possible and things I never thought I needed. Case in point, Val consistently drove the point home, that we were always to be multitasking and paying attention to our surroundings. If there was a customer that was staring at a section too long or that looked like they were waiting for some attention, we were to address that immediately and make sure that we took those nonverbal queues seriously. But quite possibly the most fun party trick I gained was how to be an ambidextrous listener. Val insisted on the fact that if you were talking with someone else, that you should be aware of what's being said around you. This way, if someone had a question, you didn't miss it. This also meant that if you were being helped by one of us, that at the same time, the other staff that was there was to help out too. So if she didn't know the answer, but I did and I heard the question, I could stop mid sentence with the customer I was helping and address the other customers question too. It's a skill I retain to this day and makes me very alert to my surroundings and can sometimes garner strange looks from others. Val also was a firm believer in providing more than the customer asked for. Like when we got a phone call requesting what time we closed that day, we were also advised to tell them the full schedule for the week. You never knew when someone might say, “Hey, I didn't know you were open on Saturdays!” This is something I use in my current job and it gets me accolades for going above and beyond for my members. This was just another life lesson that Val taught me, that went beyond just being useful in the store. There's so many more, just too many to list and I'm losing my words again.
Before long, I had the opportunity to take over as a manager. I had changed career paths at school and was now at Columbia College studying film, so it only made sense to change roles in the store as well. Needless to say, I was floored at the idea that she trusted me to be her right hand man. Something I did not take lightly and thus began my era in the stores history. At this point in my life, I was firing on all cylinders. I knew more about music then I ever thought was possible. I could research things with such ease and accuracy, that it became like second nature. I became comfortable in the role of helping people and guiding them to things that maybe they hadn't tried before. I learned about what it takes to run a business. My entire world was opened up to all of the possibilities that there were in this life and that it takes all kinds of people to make the world go round. I felt like I was a part of something far greater than I was and it was all thanks to a woman who gave me chance. Who saw something that even I couldn't see. Something that everyone deserves in this life, but not every one gets. That was the kind of woman she was. Because of this, I wear my time working with Val as a badge of honor. Some of the greatest days of my life, were spent behind that counter with her and no one can ever take that away from me.
Val also introduced me to all that Oak Park had to offer. Primarily in the form of places to eat like Erik's delicatessen, Grape Leaves, Vivaldi's, Tasty Dog and Luo's Peking House, just to name a few. She broadened my cinematic horizons and my taste in literature. Val was not only an expert in music, but an expert in just about anything that she loved. I'll never forget our Christmas parties, hosted after hours in the store. The anniversary sales, where one of us would go pick up some beer before the festivities started and for that one day, we would drink on the job. How many of you can say that? I remember one particularly snowy day, when I used to live within walking distance to the store (which she helped me find that apartment), walking to work and finding Val stuck in the snow, as driving a teal Camero in Oak Park is just asking for trouble. I helped push her out of the snow and met her at work a short time later. For that entire day, we only saw one customer, a man on ski's who had basically cross countried his way to come and shop. The rest of the day was spent with just she and I talking. It was something I will forever miss. That one on one time that we shared, because that.... to me.... was more valuable than any amount of money in the world. I also remember making runs to the White Hen Pantry for coffee, cigarettes or soda. Even as a manager, I was not above a 'Hen Run'. Which reminds me of another perk of being in Val's circle of friends, people know you. Not me in particular, but that I worked for Val. I'd get questions about how she was doing or “Do you carry the new album by Pearl Jam?”, it was a regular occurrence and something I never minded one bit. Did I mention that Val was intregal in my decision making process on what kind of dog to get? Yup. My love affair with basset hounds all stems from Val as well. She even introduced me to her personal vet, who soon became mine. Which reminds me that in the early days, Val didn't come as a one person act. She always had Loki in tow and Woden manning the store, even after Val had gone home for the night. I can't tell you how many times we'd go looking for Woden out in the bushes, when he decided it was time to patrol the area in front of the store. Those two had just as much personality as she did. Val also had an interesting knack for the people she hired. She once confided in me that she tended to only hire Virgo's. Not intentionally, but for whatever reason, she was drawn to them. I even polled the employees at the time, after I learned of this, and sure enough.... almost every single one of them was a Virgo. Just one more thing that made Val who she was.
Eventually, my time at the store came to an end. At this point, I had since completed all of the schooling I could handle and was married and wanting to start a family. (Val was at my wedding) I continued on in my role for as long as I could, until one day the decision was made to move to Kansas City again. The promise of a home and a place to raise my children, was too great and that was it. However, that is not the end of this story. Every year after, I was always there for the anniversary sale, right up until the original location closed. Any time I was in town, I always stopped in to say hello and chat. I even made sure that shortly after my daughter was born, that she came into the store to meet 'Grandma' Val. Time marches on, as I moved from one state to the next and then back to Illinois, but this time I was an hour and a half away. It was no longer a short walk to the store, but I still made time to see Val and to re-introduce her to my ever growing children. There was that moment when I'd walk in the store, where I was anticipating her seeing me again and that ever so familiar greeting, “Oh hey, you!” that just made me feel like I was home again. We'd spend time catching up, as we're both simultaneously listening for the cue to jump in and answer a question of a bewildered customer. It was always like no time had passed, but things can't last forever.
Last week I got the message that Val was in the hospital. By the weekend, she was in a rehabilitation facility and it was suggested that I come and see her, as her time may be short. I drove down late in the day on Sunday and was greeted outside her door by 14 other people who loved her just as much as I did. It was a bittersweet homecoming, as everyone smiled and put on their best faces. I could only wish that I would have so many people surrounding me that felt the way we do about her. There were plenty of deeply felt hugs and proof that family isn't just blood. This was my family and Val was out matriarch. We all spent time catching up and one by one visiting Val by her bedside. As the numbers slowly dwindled down to just me and my former right hand girl, Jen. We sat down next to Val and talked to her and regaled her with stories of the good old days. We're not sure if she heard what was said, but I like to think that she still knew we were there. Eventually, I was left alone with the woman who has always meant more to me than any simple words could express. I told her that I loved her and I thanked her for everything she did for me and for making me a better man. I rubbed her back and said my goodbyes and that was the last time I was ever to see her. By Tuesday.... she was gone. I still can't fathom how someone who was always so bigger than life, could just be taken like that in an instant. In our minds, we picture those around us as being immortal. I always thought that Val would be there. She was such a fixture in my world that the idea of her ever leaving it was impossible, but it's happened and I don't know where to go from here. As I write this, I have yet to really break down and feel the true weight of her being gone. I know it's still coming and I know it will be a crushing blow, but the one thing I continually take comfort in is that this isn't the end. The connections I made and the extended family she provided, will always be there. Val was the center of all of us, out bright shining star, and we orbited around her, like oh so many planets. Some of us were closest to her and others would drift in and out, but she created a greater universe of amazing people that I'm proud to have known. We've seen some come and go, but they're never truly gone. Once you're a member of Val's family, you're a member for life. For that, I thank her.
Which brings us back to the beginning, when I was once a 19 year old kid who wandered into a store, looking for a cassette. The thing is, I'm 43 years old now and I'm just realizing that.... I never really left after that. Rest in peace, Val. I only hope that you knew what a truly unique and wonderful person you were for so many and for so many reasons. You may be gone, but you will never be forgotten.