Sitting behind the cash register, eating pretzels and swiveling my butt around on a New Jersey Devils stool, and I can’t help but bemoan, “I’m not even supposed to be here today.”
It is Wednesday – new comic book day -- at Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash in Red Bank, NJ, and I am most certainly supposed to be here. This is the house that local-nerd-makes-good Kevin Smith built, and the house that AMC’s unscripted show Comic Book Men expanded on.
And as you’ll see in the video above, somehow without an apparent concern for its destruction (or because they have extensive insurance coverage), it is the house they are allowing me to help run as a clerk for a day -- with a little training from Stash employees and cast members Michael Zapcic and Ming Chen.
Airing its Season Four midseason finale this Sunday at midnight, the series revolves around the daily operations at The Stash. Zapcic, Chen, manager Walt Flanagan and honorary Stasher Bryan Johnson debate nerdy topics, haggle with customers trying to buy/sell collectibles, and record a podcast with owner Smith. They also embark on adventures with geek culture celebs like Adam West, Billy Dee Williams and – as seen in this exclusive clip from Sunday’s episode – Ghostbusters' Ernie Hudson.
There is very little of those shenanigans taking place during my time as a counter jockey.
The first thing I notice about The Stash is that it is fairly typical comic shop on an upscale Red Bank street. Down the street from a Tiffany & Co. and across from a Starbucks, it stands out due to the cartoonish illustrations on the storefront, but is no more out of place than a Disney Store might be.
The inside is big but not cavernous. New comics dominate one long wall, sharing space with graphic novels and toys (including a lot of Funko Pop! vinyl figures). Back issues take over a center aisle, with tees and spinning magazine racks located here and there. Aside from a large display case containing props from Smith’s View Askewniverse films, and some costumes situated throughout, the joint doesn’t look particularly famous or like the set for a television show. The View Askew merch area and the well-worn poker table used for SModcast podcast recordings blend into the overall atmosphere of a friendly neighborhood comic shop. Even the secondary shop counter, built for the show and used on camera since Season Two, is utilized as storage and a place to shove some additional toys and books.
In case you’re wondering how much of Comic Book Men is Hollywood smoke-and-mirrors (by way of Jerz), rest assured that The Stash operates like a typical business as well. Despite its owner being perhaps the most famous nerd voice out there, it is business as usual when the cameras are not rolling. The night before, new comics were stocked and pulled for reservists (subscribers). As Chen walks me around, he has me replenish dwindling issues on the wall.
At one point, we’re just trading nerd stories and discussing movie casting when a customer asks for recommendations for a new comic reader looking to break out of super hero books. Between the two of us, we suggest The Walking Dead (Chen unabashedly admitted he wakes up every day thanking the universe for Robert Kirkman, master of the comic and lead-in show to CBM) the Starman Omnibus, Saga, Preacher and Y: The Last Man. Watchmen comes up, which leads us to a conversation about who would win in a competition between surly, bearded nerds: Alan Moore or Bryan Johnson.
“Bryan Johnson is also grumpy, also surly and also doesn’t like anything; we need a grump-off,” he joked.
The victor remains undetermined, but if CBM ever goes abroad, we agree they need an episode called “Searching for Alan Moore” where Johnson pursues the prickly comic genius.
Ming Chen also expresses he is in need of a Funko figure in his likeness. He says the figures for Glenn from The Walking Dead or Data from The Goonies only need a slight repaint with a Stash logo for them to look like him.
Moving along, I end up doing a bit of clean up duty. Using a sweeper on the shop rug hardly feels like a chore since it reminds me of the old Fisher Price corn poppers. I take the job seriously and am diligent in my task despite some slight abuse from fellow Stash employee Mark -- who is more than happy to grumble at me as I work. Regardless, I take exceptional pride in being so good at this job; I discover I am so detail-oriented that I wonder if sweeping is my super power. I was hoping for time travel abilities, but I'll take it if so.
Eventually I work my way up the shop hierarchy, earning the rare privilege of working behind the register. Behind the scenes of the counter is a packed hodgepodge of, as Zapcic calls it, “nerd candy.” Along with a giant Mooby statue from Jay and Silent Bob Strikes Back, toys, discarded comics and other miscellanea occupy the crowded spot. An old issue of The Flash leans against the counter along with a Murder, She Wrote board game. (Fun fact: I learn Jason Mewes loves this show.)
Zapcic takes to training me on the register, and I really suck at it at first. Instead of touchscreen tablets with credit card readers, the till is something out of the mid-1980s. The guys use a calculator to determine cost, plug it into the machine and pop open the cash drawer. Apparently Flanagan is dedicated to the simpler ways of commerce. When another version of this outdated machine died, they replaced it with the closest related model, much to the dismay of Smith’s daughter when she visited the store.
Still, there are just enough buttons that, as a customer is waiting to be rung up, I feel the pressure. And this isn’t a Black Friday crowd; more like a tame Wednesday trickle. But any stress I encounter from simply ringing up customers is astronomically increased when a visitor from Belgium wants to haggle over his purchase.
To be clear, this guy didn’t want to haggle over a vintage collectible or rare issue. These are new items with suggested retail prices, such as a toy, tee and comic. Though mildly annoyed, Zapcic indulges him. He is a fan from Belgium, after all, and the guy just wants to experience the same kind of back-and-forth that happens a lot on the show. Zapcic says this doesn’t happen too frequently, and that a majority of his interactions are with regulars so he was willing to roll with it – this time.
However, his tolerance doesn’t take away from the awkward vibe of the proceedings. After playing along, Zapcic lets me take over and I kindly suggest the guy take the deal or go home without anything. We manage to strike a deal, and I like to imagine I earn a slight nod of approval from my boss. My final duty of the transaction is to snap a photo of the international fan with the guys.
During some downtime toward the end of the day, Alice Cooper comes up in conversation. A lot of classic rock makes its way onto the soundtrack of the store, and Cooper has a special spot on the playlist. Chen says Cooper is the number one rock star he’d like to visit The Stash. When I ask them about a fantasy comic pull list for the rocker, Zapcic says he’d set aside Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and Outcast, Grayson (“Cooper seems like an intrigue kind of guy”) and Guardians of the Galaxy.
The exchange gives me a sense of how organic the conversations are on Comic Book Men – that is, when they don’t involve the guys selling ice cream with Ernie Hudson or drag racing with the Black Beauty and Batmobile. The talk at The Stash, like the entire atmosphere, is natural and nerdy. Before it was a show, it was a shop, and it will be again when the show eventually ends its run.
After a day spent stocking, sweeping, ringing up and striking a bargain, my shift comes to an end. My status as Clerk is downgraded to customer, and my cameraperson Erin and I putz around the shop picking up goodies for ourselves.
Before I leave, Ming Chen delivers my payment for my work as Clerk for a Day: I get to tag the podcast table with my name and a Batman logo. It may be the closest thing to a legacy I leave at Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash. That, and incredibly well-swept floors, because I was really good at that part.