COLUMBIA — Ten years ago, Scott Schilb walked into a Kentucky bookstore and bought a 19th-century copy of Dante's "Divine Comedy."
Elated, he took the book home and showed it to his wife. She reminded him that they were newlyweds — and graduate students at the time — and not in a position to make financial investments.
Schilb agreed and posted the book for sale on the Internet. Very quickly, he sold it and doubled his money.
Later, he returned to the same bookstore and found another 19th-century title, this time a book on Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci.
Again he put the book up for sale, and again, he made twice what he paid for it.
"At that point, I was hooked," Schilb said.
"I was a rare-book addict."
Already a healthy business
He founded Schilb Antiquarian a decade ago, and it has become a thriving Web-based business with an international reputation and a catalog of 600 to 1,000 rare books.
Original plans called for opening a bookstore in downtown Columbia on Monday, but he moved the opening to Friday. The store features his collection of rare and eclectic titles available on shelves, as well as online.
Schilb Antiquarian will be at 100 N. Providence Road, Suite 101, next to Tucker's Fine Jewelry, between Walnut and Ash streets.
It was conceived as a rare-book shop and art gallery, with rotating exhibits set up every few months with various themes, depending on public interest and market demand. The first is called "Masterpieces of Civilization," with illustrious titles to be displayed throughout the store.
Schilb has arranged the shop to showcase the jewels in his collection, to allow ample space for browsing and to provide an engaging experience for customers.
In the center of the store are two, 10-foot executive bookshelves, stacked back-to-back, holding rare works from noted writers — Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, John Locke, Ayn Rand, Mark Twain, George Orwell and others.
The rest of the collection is arranged on Queen Anne bookcases of different heights around the room. Potential buyers can inspect the books at a viewing table near the front of the store.
The collection is set against a rich backdrop: Walls are deep burgundy with a display of medieval handwritten manuscripts, wood and copper engravings and oil and watercolor paintings.
Three high-back chairs are placed near the back for reading, and an LED television on the wall displays the store's inventory. There is also a cappuccino bar.
Rare books in a college town
Schilb studied a number of other locations before deciding on Columbia. France would have been ideal and Italy was a possibility, he said.
He also considered large urban centers along the coasts, where 99 percent of large-inventory, antiquarian-specific book dealers in the United States are located. Bauman Rare Books in New York City and David Brass Rare Books in Los Angeles are two of the biggest sellers.
"Our business is the kind of business that would be exceptional on the East or West Coast," he said. In the end, though, family values, roots and the opportunity to establish meaningful relationships led Schilb and his family here.
His wife, Jill, is a member of the Atkinson family, owners of the Candy Factory on Cherry Street.
The Schilbs decided to settle in her hometown, where they could raise their three children, invest in the community and be a part of the cultural mix.
Although Scott Schilb maintains an eclectic approach to his collection, he has developed an affinity for the oldest and rarest books — antiquarian titles printed between 1450 and 1501, shortly after the Gutenberg press was introduced.
Profile of a collection
Schilb specializes in medieval books and manuscripts that predate the founding of the United States by nearly 300 years. These works are known as the incunabula — a Latin term meaning "from the cradle," Schilb said.
The collection ranges in date from 1478 to 1946, and one medieval manuscript could date to as early as 1300. Prices vary just as dramatically, from a $45 version of "Ten Years a Cowboy" to a $50,000 version of "Stirpium Adversaria Nova," an illustrated botany text from the 1570s.
There is a 1937 first-edition copy of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men"; a 1946 printing of "Lucky to be a Yankee," signed by Hall of Fame centerfielder Joe DiMaggio; and an original "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," based on the film, from 1938.
Among the antiquarian titles, a 1497 printing of the "Dieta Saluts of Saint Bonaventure," an illuminated text most likely drawn by a monk, is one of Schilb's favorites.
The vellum binding is made from animal skin, and the look and the feel of the pages are clues to its authenticity.
"It's distinctive," Schilb said, rubbing his hand over the pages.
He can give an accurate dating just by looking at the typography. Every printer used different fonts and stylistic preferences, he said.
"I've looked at hundreds of thousands of books," he said.
"I can look at a book for three seconds and tell you the decade it was printed."
Beginnings of a book addict
Schilb began to study rare books with determination after doubling his money on his first two purchases. He read about them. He looked at pictures online. He studied library science and bibliographic references, memorized first edition dates and values.
"I became literally obsessed with rare books," he said.
He began as a book scout, scouring local shops, estate sales and auction sites, selling what he found on Amazon and eBay. As his knowledge grew, so did his confidence. He took bigger risks, invested larger amounts of money — and eventually, it paid off.
He moved on to the international arena, searching Europe for rare and antiquarian works.
"It was a challenging, exhilarating, somewhat maddening feel," Schilb said.
He established an online presence, making contacts across the globe, developing a worldwide customer base. According to Web analytics, more than 100,000 people visit his website every year, he said.
He said he receives calls from monasteries, libraries and universities in foreign countries that are liquidating their inventory.
Book scouts now come to him, he said.
Fitting into the culture
Schilb's niche in mid-15th century and early 16th century works will be unusual to the Columbia area, and other local rare book dealers say they welcome the company.
Nancy Duncan, proprietor of Adams Walls of Books, belongs to a family that has operated a business from the same location since 1926. It has been a dedicated bookstore since the 1950s.
Having Schilb Antiquarian in town will be wonderful, Duncan said.
The sentiment was echoed by Annette Kolling-Buckley, who opened Columbia Books in 1977.
"It will be a good thing," she said.
While there is some overlap in terms of inventory and all three stock rare and antiquarian books, the stores do not compete directly. Each focuses on different subject matters and historical periods, a reflection of the owners and their specific tastes and interests.
Duncan said her primary niche is classic American authors, such as J.D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway.
Jonathan Pons, an avid rare-book collector and employee at Columbia Books, described Duncan's interests as Americana and ornithology — the study of birds — a topic passed down by her father.
Before opening Columbia Books, Kolling-Buckley studied in the library sciences program at MU under professor Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt, a noted bibliography expert and member of The Monuments Men.
Kolling-Buckley views her business as a humanities-based general store with an emphasis on children's books, but typography and printing remain influential topics from her studies at the university.
Schilb's own place can be traced back to the visit to a Kentucky bookstore 10 years ago, where he found more than just a hobby and more than just a 19th-century copy of Dante's "Divine Comedy."
"I found something that I loved," he said, "and it was rare books."
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