Kevin Smith owes his career to comic books. When he needed the money to finance his low-budget debut film "Clerks," he sold his entire comic book collection to the owner of his favorite local shop, Comicology. And when Comicology's owner decided to get out of the business a few years later, he offered to sell the store to the now rich and successful Smith, who bought it, renamed it Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash, and put the management in the hands of his good friend Walter Flanagan. In its current location on Broad Street in Red Bank, it's become a tourist attraction and as much of a memorabilia museum from Smith's movies as it is a place to buy the latest issue of "Superman."
 
Now Flanagan, and the Stash, are the subject of a reality TV show, "Comic Book Men," debuting on AMC tonight at 10, and showing how Flanagan and friends Bryan Johnson, Mike Zapcic and Ming Chen deal with the customers and the business.
 
I spoke to lifelong comic book fan — and, on occasion, comic book author — Smith about his own history with comic shops, how and why he came to own this one, his expectations for the show and why Walt didn't want to be Snooki.
 
What's the first comic store you remember going to?

Kevin Smith: Direct market?

Well, where did you buy your comics before you went to a direct market store?

Kevin Smith: Well, I’d steal my comics from Cass’ Confectionery. They had spinner racks, back when comics were thirty-five to sixty cents apiece. I’d pull every issue and stick them into this box where they had folders, like Mead folders that you could buy for school, like twenty-nine cents. 

There was a small stack of them, so I stacked comics underneath and then I’d wait until they built up over the course of a few weeks, then I’d go in with a book bag and steal them, so that's how I got those 

Then I fell out of comics in high school, because I was like, "Comics? I like pussy." Then after high school, it was Walter Flanagan who was pretty fucking badass, too, and he liked comics. And was just like you get the comics and pussy too, so he got me back into it. 

So he took me to Strathmore, the hobby shop in Matawan. It would probably be the Strathmore. And I went looking for "Grimjack." To complete a "Grimjack" run, I needed about 30 issues. And I went looking for it that day. "The Killing Joke" had just come out, so we were always looking for first prints of "Killing Jokes," because we could trade them for 10 bucks a pop. 

So I’m going to assume if Walt took you to a place, it was a good store and not one run by an asshole. 

Kevin Smith: When Walt took me to a place, it was the only one, because you’re talking back in the day there weren't a lot of choices. There was Fantasy Zone later on in Red Bank. But the one in Matawan had been there 10 years prior to the direct market, because they did more than just comics. They did models. It was an all-around hobby shop with massive comics.

So what was management like? Because, when I would go to shops a few years after you as a kid, there were some run by cool guys and some run by the biggest jerks on the planet. 

Kevin Smith: Always erudition, that's the currency in any comic book store. It’s just like, "What are you doing here?" Because the beauty of the clerk is that if you don't own it, you can be shitty to everyone else until your owner finds out and then they replace you. 

So these cats wouldn't go to the hobby shop in Matawan. The dudes behind the counter, I was a little more unctuous than them, because I’d just gotten back into it, so I didn't want any crease in the book. I would go through, handpick them out, almost carry them on a platter like this, bring them up to them to get paid for and the first thing they fucking do is bend the book! Like, no, I just took 10 minutes to find the best copy. So I go back, find another one, come back and do it again. 

So I was a little more unctuous than them and they would - I remember the dude at Fantasy and that was so weird. It was Dave, what was his name, Wyndorf, who was the lead singer of a group called Monster Magnet. They became kind of famous. He was the guy that would run the counter, and like I would get into enough fights, but I’d be like, "You bent the fucking book, dude." I wouldn't say he was Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons," but he definitely had erudition and he was definitely like, "You’re taking this too seriously." 

Do you remember your first actual good experience with a guy in a store, where you said, "If I ever had one of these one day..."?

Kevin Smith: Who did we like? I’m trying to think of the retailers we really liked. We liked the dude who bought the comic book store, and we weren't quite sure of his name. It was either Steve or Dave and we called him Steve-Dave all the time, and that's where that name comes from in my movies. We liked him. He gave us a good discount. He was very much like the Comic Book Guy, very like judgmental and very acerbic and whatnot. But we liked him because he gave us the fat discount. Thirty percent was pretty huge in those days. Then he bought my comics. 

You sold the collection to help finance "Clerks" and then you buy that store later, right? 

Kevin Smith: Mm-hmm. 

So what was it that made you say, "All right, I want to own a comic book store?" 

Kevin Smith: You were kind of forced into it, man, by virtue of the fact that I felt one day, eventually, I’d retire and fucking run a comic book store. That seemed like, you know, they’d kick me out of movies one day and I could just do that. 

Then, when Steve-Dave approached us one day, and he was just like, "I’m moving back to Thailand with my wife. So I’m going to close or sell the store and I was going to put it on the market. But before I do that, I know you like comics and I know you’ve got some movie money, so do you have any interest in buying the store?" And I was like, "You know what, dude, I honestly thought one day we would all own a store, like me and my friends, and this is a little earlier than I expected, but let me look at it." 

And he came up with the price. And it was too high. I got him down to 30k and I rationalized it by going it’s roughly what we spent to make the film. It was like three grand more than what we spent to make "Clerks," $2,500 really, than what it cost to make "Clerks." 

But "Clerks" kind of made all my dreams come true and this was meant to make Walt’s dream come true. Because Walt’s only ever wanted to run a comic book store and I was like I can make that fucking happen. Some things in life you can't do for your friends, but that one, that was easy. 

So I was like, "All right, I’ll buy the store and Walt will run it." And he wouldn't do it for two years. He refused to do it. He was like comic book stores close all the time. He was like, "I work at the rec center, dude. I make $15,000 a year with benefits. I’m not leaving," and I was like, "Oh, lord." 

Two years later, we had the store open. Walter would order the books but he wouldn't go work down there, wouldn't leave the rec center. Two years later, I said, "Walter, I will pay you the most of any comic book store manager has ever been paid in New Jersey, $40,000 to $50,000, leave the other job and run this, this is what you want in life." And finally, he fucking did it and that was like 10 years ago. 

He was always like, "It’s going to close." I said, "Dude, I swear to you I’ll keep it open for minimum of five years." But he’s run the business very tight, so he’s kept it alive. So ironically enough, he wrote his own ticket, so to speak. Like he was the one that kind of got me back into comics and because of that one day I was like, "Oh shit, here have a comic book store to run." 

And we’ve done so much in that space and now for it to be this (reality show) is weird. But the sad thing is he didn't want to do it. I was like, "Wow, man, you’ll never believe this one. There may be an AMC reality show." And he went, "Well, I don't want to do it." I said, "Come on, why not?" He goes, "I don't want to be fucking Snooki." I was like, "You don't have to be Snooki. Bryan could be Snooki. But why wouldn't you want to be Snooki? Man, Snooki made a lot of money last year." He goes, "I ain’t interested in that." And I said, "Dude, it could be a really good commercial for the store," and there was a beat of silence. He goes, "All right, I’ll do it, because that’d be a good thing for the store." 

I always assumed one day Walter would just buy the store from me.  So I think he saw it as kind of like a free commercial. Let’s do it. Johnson didn't want to do it, but he eventually did it, because he wants to fix his fucking knee and needs the money.

In terms of it as an advertisement, I used to live in Hoboken before "Cake Boss" debuted, and you could go into that place all the time. And now, every time you go in there, it’s a line a mile long. 

Kevin Smith: Yeah, I don't think it’s going to happen, though. Number one, I don't think we have the crossover relatability. Everyone likes cake. Everyone likes dessert and shit. I think with our thing we’ll definitely see an uptick of people going, "Oh my god, Jay and Silent Bob are still alive and the store exists." So we’ll see some influx of that, but I don't think it’ll be like that.

True. You can't just hop across the river. With you guys, it’s a trip. 

Kevin Smith: But you can get there pretty direct, 45 minutes on the train. But it would be interesting. You know, I don't think it’ll be like lines around the block. I think it’ll be nice if a few more people realize we’re there.

So when you opened the store, what if anything was your philosophy: "This is my store, I want it to be this"?

Kevin Smith: It got beat out of me quickly, because Walter, since I was like, "Dude, I want you to take over the store," he treated it more like his. So I would go in and Walter would put shit on the spinner rack that I didn't like or put shit on the counter and I was like let me move it over here. I’d do that at night. I’d go in later the next day and everything was back the way it was. 

And I remember having a conversation with Johnson, because I’m like, "I move shit and he moves it right back." And Johnson was just like, "Dude, he hates it. He hates it when you go into that store and touch things." So I said, "But it’s my store." He says, "No, it’s not. You asked him to run it, so it’s his store." And so at that point, I was like, "All right, I guess I won't touch anything in the store." 

So everything you see in the store is a reflection of Walter’s taste, not mine, but, thankfully, they’re pretty damn close. But I learned early on, and it was a tough lesson, too, because I wanted to be as involved in it but the only way he was going to treat it like his was to give him full rein. 

And it originally was in the location from that deleted scene in "Chasing Amy" and you moved a couple of times until you landed on Broad Street in the center of town.

Kevin Smith: What used to be the ice cream place. 

Was it just because you wanted to be more central?

Kevin Smith: We were right on Broad Street. The weird thing is we didn't expect it to be the prop museum it became. The first store was kind of small. When we hung up like a poster from one of the movies or something, people would come. I remember the first time we had someone come from London. They were like, "Do you have any props?" And we’re like, "What do you mean?" And they’re like, "Well, this is Jay and Silent Bob’s store," and we’re like, "Oh, let’s hang shit up like Planet Hollywood." 

And we didn't have a lot of wall space down there. We wanted to move to a place where we could put up a lot of things. That's the reason we moved. 

At this point, what percentage of the revenue is coming from the comics verses the movie stuff?

Kevin Smith: I mean, it was never remotely in the same ballpark ever. The nice thing about the store — I told Walter, "I will always leave the store open so long as it pays for itself. As long as I don't have to keep paying for it, as long as I don't have to support it or something out of pocket, if it pays for itself, I’ll keep it open forever." 

So I’ve never had to pay for it out of pocket. Now, it gets bolstered. At one point, it was bolstered by the online was connected to it, so a lot of our online stuff was going through The Stash, but now that's been separated out. 

But The Stash has always kind of held its own and it’s taken care of itself, because Walter won't carry golden or silver age. He only believes in putting up what he can sell. And when it comes to ordering, he’s not the guy who’s like, "Hey, man, I got 50 of this issue." He’s like, "I got six, and when they’re gone, they’re gone." So he runs a pretty tight ship. 

So something like DC's "New 52" launch —

Kevin Smith: It’s 20 issues tops. 

Really? Okay. 

Kevin Smith: Dude, like even my shit. I’m like, "Hey, man, I got a book coming out that I wrote," even something conservative like "Daredevil." Even the book we did together, I’m like, "Dude, it’s our book. We can sell it as a signed book forever." He’s still very conservative in the ordering. 

But do you tend to do more signings and stuff just to give him a boost? 

Kevin Smith: We used to. We used to do a lot more signings down there. When did we stop? We stopped after the last one. It was like a 16-hour day and he was like, "That's enough for the time being." But that's where we held all the signings.

And just given the changes in the market and everyone’s pushing towards digital, the store is still doing okay?

Kevin Smith: Yeah, the nice thing is comic books, if I had to break down a percentage of new books, accounts for maybe 10, 15 percent (of income). So it’s like the merchandise we sell. People still buy toys, incredibly — that's the bread and butter. The comics, if you can get them digitally, most folks aren't coming in to fucking buy them. 

That's the nice thing about this show is that we remind people like, hey, comics, not just digital. They actually have them, you could hold them in your hands and you could walk in and buy them. So, hopefully, that'll push that up. But in all the years we’ve been doing it, the new books have never been the biggest percentage, though, less now than ever. Honestly, we may do better with (trade paperback collections) than we do with new books at the store, because of shit like digital. 

Your personality has always been important to your career. But what's it like to put yourself and then Walter and everybody else in the middle of this reality show milieu, where it's unscripted but you’ve got producers saying, "We need a show, we’ve got to have things happening"?

Kevin Smith: It was definitely degrees of learning, because we shot a presentation that AMC picked up. And I was like, "Great, so every show should look like this." And originally, (they said), "No, that's fine in the beginning. That's only 12 minutes long. We need to fill 44 every week." So thankfully I was with people who knew how to structure. Honestly, it’s an editor’s world. I would never know how to come up with - I wouldn't see the stories the way they do. Like I’m good with the shit where we sit around and podcast to set up the stories, but like I couldn't figure out the way they work the action.

But this is the thing, when I pitched it, I just pitched "Pawn Stars" at a comic book store. What the show did become without my influence and I was kind of delighted when I watched the first episode is "Clerks" the reality show. It’s "Clerks" the reality show mixed with "Mallrats"the reality show. So for me, when I watch it, it takes me right back to that moment in time and those feelings that spawned those two movies and it involves the same people that spawned it the first time. 

So it felt like after years of going, "All these movies are thinly veiled portrayals of my friends," here, we take the mask off. These are my friends and they’re way funnier. Honestly, Johnson’s far funnier than anything I ever wrote for Randall, because Randall is based on Bryan Johnson. Walter’s funnier than anything I wrote for Brodie and Brodie is based on Walter. 

So putting them front and center and just letting them say whatever they’re going to fucking say to me, people are going to like it or they won't. But I think they’re going to, because there’s something charming about them. They’re not just the normal kind of acerbic, like, "Fuck everything" clerks. They’re middle age, too, you know what I’m saying. So they’ve been called losers enough in their life where they just feel like, "No, at a certain point, you go beyond loser into a winner" kind of thing. 

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com