Moving from Chicago to Madison in 1984 to be closer to his sister, the then 30-year-old Mross stumbled upon a copy of <i>Isthmus</i> at one of its many local distribution points.
For some people, it's Pez dispensers. For others, it's a cabinet shelf dedicated to shot glasses and McDonald's Happy Meal toys.
For 57-year-old Alan Mross of Middleton, it's been a copy of Isthmus newspaper every week without fail for 28 years.
Sitting in the kitchen of his home, Mross is the first to point out the peculiar nature of his collection, a time-capsule of 1400+ issues of Madison-related news that he recently put up for sale on Craigslist, due to his wife's "gentle and loving but persistent nagging" to get rid of them.
"It's an odd thing," says the soft-spoken Mross, who splits his time between carpentry and co-owning apartment complexes with his wife. "I don't have a real good reason for collecting Isthmus. I've scanned through the articles, but my real hope for collecting them was that someday they'd be worth something if I got a lot of them. I've seen other people who collect things like toys, and because they have so many, it becomes valuable. Because Isthmus is free, I was planning on collecting 30 years worth of issues."
He laughs, shaking his head. "But my wife has been pretty consistent with her bugging me to get rid of them, saying that I don't need them. So I didn't quite make it."
After moving from Chicago to Madison in 1984 to be closer to his sister, the then 30-year-old Mross stumbled upon a copy of Isthmus at one of its many local distribution points. Unfortunately, the specifics of the day have been lost to his memory, which is disappointing, considering the sheer size of the collection. All that can be discerned is that it was obviously an unremarkable day, lacking any cinematic omen like, say, a gang of dancing squirrels on a stack that would have prompted him to abruptly change course and pick up a copy.
"There wasn't anything unusual or noteworthy about it to me," says Mross. "Having grown up in Milwaukee, I was pretty familiar with papers like that, stuff like The Bugle-American and Kaleidoscope. I used to collect those, too, but I threw them out over the years."
Added to his willingness to throw out other papers, there are a few other details that make his Isthmus collection all the more unusual. Firstly, there's the fact that Mross admits to only "casually browsing" through Isthmus issues when he picks them up, after which he then places them in storage, never to be looked at again. Secondly, there's the fact that he's not a collector of anything else.
"I used to collect things when I was little," says Mross. "I had a matchbook and bottle cap collection, weird things like that. I even had a complete set of baseball cards, and this was back in the '60s. They were fun at the time, but they didn't last."
Trailing off in thought, I fill the silence by telling him that some people feel the tendency to collect things is a genetic trait. My grandfather, for instance, had a predilection for collecting CD towers and computer keyboards, a fact that may have something to do with my own obsessive book-buying.
"I've got a little bit of that," Mross admits. "My Dad was like that. He collected golf clubs and sold them. Being brought up with him, I think it may have rubbed off on me -- going to flea markets when I was young with him and second hand places, watching him save things."
Despite the hassle of dragging his growing collection along with him every time he moved, Isthmus has at least affected Mross' life in one significant respect. During the summer of 1996, he placed an ad in the papers' classifieds section, where it was answered by his future wife Cindy. They have since been together for 15 years, and happily married for nearly 10.
"My wife is not a collector," says Mross. "I probably wouldn't be getting rid of them if I didn't have her, but then again, I'm not one of those hoarders. Our house isn't like some people's, where you can't walk around."
Looking around his house, it is admittedly well-kept, devoid of the tell-tale signs of hoarderdom -- there's no army of cats, no soiled copies of Isthmus glued to the wall.
Leading me down a set of stairs into the garage, Mross concludes the interview by showing me the collection. Recently he's found a buyer for the issues, and has them stacked neatly atop and inside cardboard boxes, ready for pick-up. Seeing the stacks in person, it's not as big as I would have imagined, taking up a relatively small amount of space in the large garage. Asking how much he eventually sold the issues for, Mross shrugs.
"I sold them for $25. I had initially priced them at $75, but after some time, without any bids, I lowered it."
Taking out my camera and snapping a few pictures, I ask if deep down he's upset to be letting them go.
"I'm not particularly upset to be letting go of them, but I will be asking the buyer what he plans to do with them," Mross says.
Taking a few more photos, I ask if he at the very least has enjoyed 28 years of excellent Isthmus stories?
Mross shrugs again, and I remember an answer he gave to a similar question up in the kitchen, one that more of less sums up the entire 28-year endeavor: "I think I should have kept my baseball cards."