Rural Missouri Magazine
The Old World Trader
Treasures abound at Rolla's most unique store

by Jim McCarty

The Old World Trader in Rolla is a curious mix of antiquities, natural history, gifts from other cultures and historical manuscripts.

Maybe you are in the market for a nice human skull to go on your mantel. Or perhaps your taste leans more toward a mounted and framed snake skeleton or a piece of 4,000-year-old Chinese pottery. What’s a collector to do?

Chances are the local flea market isn’t going to have what you need. But a trip to The Old World Trader, Rolla’s most unusual store, is sure to turn up something interesting (although the skull won’t be real).

Owner Doyle McClellan probably wishes something similar existed when he caught the collecting bug years ago. “I started off collecting rare books and manuscripts basically as soon as I could afford them,” he says. “And before I could afford them I just collected old stuff.”

You could say Doyle was born to collect old things. His grandfather and his father had huge collections, composed mostly of southwestern Indian artifacts. “Grandfather had bins and bins full of artifacts, great big display cases and that sort of thing,” the Intercounty Electric Co-op member says.

Among the items for sale at The Old World Trader are these reproduction human skulls.

The decision to turn collecting into a business came after Doyle grew bored with a successful software company he founded. “It did real well but it was not something I particularly enjoyed,” he says. “So I sold that off after about a year and started thinking about what I could do that would be a bit different.”

His original plan was to wholesale rare manuscripts and maps to frame shops. With this in mind he began gathering maps, prints and rare books. Once his collecting reached critical mass he decided to eliminate the middleman and take his wares directly to the public.

“If you have a storefront, it lends credibility,” says Doyle. “When I opened I forgot the original plan, which was to wholesale. You really have to go one way or another.”
At first the business was exclusively devoted to rare maps and manuscripts. To add variety Doyle went for broke and put his personal collection, including many of the artifacts from the family collection, up for sale.

“I didn’t want to think later if I had gone all out it would have made it,” Doyle says. “So I’ve had some really prized pieces that I’ve loved for years that I sold when I opened.”
For Doyle the pain of parting with something he had lovingly collected and cared for was tempered by the opportunity to touch pieces of history he would never have enjoyed without the store. One example is the exquisite Roman glassware for sale at the store.

A customer examines Egyptian themed art.

“For years I wanted a piece of Roman glass but I couldn’t justify buying it for myself. But now at the store I get them and I’ve had them for awhile. I can really appreciate them for what they are. When that is gone I realize there is something else I am going to get that I am going to enjoy even more,” Doyle says.

That the store has taken off and done so well is in part due to the service of Doyle’s father, Vance. While Vance runs the store day to day, Doyle stays behind the scenes and deals with the frustration of buying things from people who often don’t speak English well.

Until the store’s profits grow, Doyle continues to work in a completely unrelated field during the day. He teaches computer network administration at the Rolla Technical Institute.

Back at the store, Vance serves as more of a tour guide or docent than salesman, giving the store’s customers a running commentary that is part history, geography and sociology lecture with just a touch of religion thrown in. Sometimes his banter is qualified with comments like “my son cringes when I say this, but . . .”

Father and son, Vance, left, and Doyle, right, encourage visitors to handle the items on display.

Like the young Indiana Jones and his father, Doyle and Vance spar occasionally.
“Dad has been crucial,” Doyle admits. “He loves to talk. He jokes around. People love him for who he is — but, of course, as his kid, I just don’t get it.”

With a recent move to new quarters inside a frame shop on Highway 63, The Old World Trader is home to a wide variety of antiquities and gifts from other cultures. Among the many items for sale are dozens of chess sets.

Just inside the doorway is a shelf that holds what appear to be three actual human skulls. Instead, they are models cast from the real things. Stacked around the skulls are fossils ranging from hand-sized trilobites to much-larger fossilized sea creatures that came from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Hanging from the wall, a pair of magnificent mounted butterflies rest in a wooden frame. Vance points to the butterflies and asks what the wing tips resemble. After a closer look it becomes apparent that nature designed them to look like the heads of spitting cobras.

This tiny oil lamp is one of several for sale in the store. It’s similar to the lamps mentioned in a Bible story about handmaidens who were urged to be on watch lest their lamps run out.

Inside a glass case where Vance holds court are the delicate Roman glass bottles, rows of coins and brass rings from the Middle East. He shows customers exquisite boxes from Russia that an artist inlaid with designs made from pieces of straw.

Impossible to miss are the shelves holding Chinese pottery. One of the more unusual pieces, Vance is quick to point out, is a Chinese pot that looks just like the vegetable steamers we use today.

Other pieces of pottery, he says, are much newer — only about 700 to 800 years old.
On another wall are rows of books on historical subjects ranging from Diderot’s “Encyclopédie” to tomes on the Vietnam War. Richly detailed Greek painted icons and Egyptian art printed on papyrus appeal to art lovers.Vance can’t resist hauling out a tiny object made from clay and handing it to anyone who walks past. The object is an oil lamp, of the same type the Apostle Matthew referred to in the Bible story of the handmaidens who were urged to be on watch, lest their lanterns burn out.

Vance McClellan shows Russian babushka dolls to Christy Starr of St. Louis. Vance offers a running commentary on items for sale at The Old World Trader that adds meaning to a visit.

“That story never meant much to me until I saw how small these are,” Vance says. “They probably only hold 2 or 3 tablespoons of oil.”

Vance points out that the store has no signs that say “You break it, you buy it.” In fact, customers are encouraged to hold 4,000-year-old Chinese pots or to touch the fingerprint an artist left in another ancient vessel.

“People like holding something that’s been held by people long, long before,” Doyle says. “You can go to a museum and look at a piece but often there are things you never really understand until you pick it up and really examine it. That’s what I really want to do with these things — let people appreciate them.”

Doyle has loaned artifacts to teachers and ministers and, in one case, to a student who needed props for a history presentation. So far, few objects have been broken, and Vance admits he’s more likely to damage the pieces than the customers.

Vance unloads a box that was shipped from the Middle East. The two say every day is like Christmas when shipments from foreign lands arrive. Even with detailed descriptions and e-mailed photos, some of the items must be seen to be appreciated.

Doyle says his favorite piece changes from day to day, but currently it is a small Byzantine cross that once hung around an early Christian’s neck. What makes it special is the extreme wear on the hanger, which indicates to Doyle that it was highly prized by its owner.

These are the kinds of things Doyle likes to bring to the store. His wares tend to be common items from everyday life, whether it’s an ancient pot or a modern piece of African art carved from ebony. Everything he sells comes with a certificate of authenticity. And they are all legally acquired.

From time to time a customer will question whether items for sale at the store should be in a museum instead of for sale. Doyle tells them:

“I think you have to strike a balance,” he says. “There has to be museums with collections where very important pieces are amassed and where lots of people can appreciate them. At the same time, we have to remember that the same thing that allows them to make them visible to the masses also takes them away. In a museum, it’s three feet behind the glass and all you can do is look at them.”

You can find The Old World Trader at 410 South Bishop Ave. (Highway 63) in Rolla inside the Frame Shop Gallery. For information call (573) 341-8586,

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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