Asbury Park can claim Bruce Springsteen, and let Hackensack and Jersey City duke it out over Frank Sinatra. But Red Bank, N.J., is all about Count Basie for music . . . and Kevin Smith for all the rest.
"They come for Kevin," says owner Jack Anderson, whose Jack's Music Shoppe appeared in Smith's movie "Chasing Amy." "Not so much for Bruce, but definitely for Kevin." (As for Basie, who was born here, the town offers an annual free jazz and blues summer festival and a theater is named after the legendary musician.)
Though raised in nearby Highlands and now settled in Los Angeles, the 34-year-old screenwriter and director -- whose films include the 1994 indie flick "Clerks," "Mallrats," "Chasing Amy," "Dogma" and this year's "Jersey Girl" -- spent 10 years living in the close quarters of Red Bank, a speck less than 15 miles from the central Jersey coast and about 31/2 hours by car from D.C. He also owns a comic book store on the main drag, named after his tight-lipped alter ego, Silent Bob (full shop name: Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash). His production company, View Askew, is stationed here. And the movie-shooting locales -- plus memories -- of his early films are as embedded in the landscape as the slow-moving Navesink River and the power-washed brick buildings of downtown.
"Most people's view of New Jersey is what they see when they fly into Newark -- the oil refineries, the turnpike, the factories. But when they come here, they say, 'My God, this doesn't look like New Jersey. It's so cute,' " says Smith. "There's a reason we call it the Garden State, and this town is fully representational of that."
Perhaps that's why Smith doesn't mind when he has to return home, as he did on a recent July weekend for a family affair -- and to play tour guide to a visiting reporter. The meeting place, of course, was Stash.
Unlike most comic book stores, this one is also part museum and part pilgrimage stop. Among the stacks of X-Men and Monkey Man is a veritable Smithsonian of Smith & Co. memorabilia. A mannequin of Silent Bob and his sidekick, Jay (aka Bluntman and Chronic, or Smith and Jason Mewes), seated in their superhero-stoner mobile and dueling with laser swords, takes up a chunk of the back room. A giant Jesus statue gives two thumbs up. Glass cases display behind-the-movie-scenes souvenirs, including a "Dogma" script, Silent Bob's long, heavy black coat and candid Polaroids of Ben Affleck, who's starred in many of Smith's films.
But this is also a business, and so shill it does: You can buy "Clerks" T-shirts, "Jersey Girl" posters, "Chasing Amy" shot glasses, Silent Bob action figures. But even cooler than the molded-plastic dolls is real-life Walt Flanagan, who pops up in Smith's movies and mans the counter.
On this Monday, though, Smith is also working the floor -- straightening the merchandise, conferring with Walt, greeting customers -- before leaving the near-empty store for a drive and a bite in town, voice-over commentary included.
"I used to eat here all the time at the Broadway Grill. There was a mini-scandal when the Broadway Diner opened up down the street," Smith says, hogging most of the two-lane street with his rental SUV. "It's funny because neither one is on Broadway."
Smith commends the grill for its Great White Way theme (lots of posters and such) and well-prepared food, but he favors the '50s-themed diner because "Jersey diner food is different than any other diner food, except maybe Baltimore's."
The food at the L-shaped restaurant -- notable for its slippery pink booths, tiny tabletop jukeboxes (sadly for show only) and waitresses who call ya "honey" -- could shoot your cholesterol through the eatery's silver roof. But it also caters to low-carbers, serving up egg whites and sausage, hold the toast and hash browns. (Smith admitted that he gained 25 pounds after his "Jersey Girl" bomb.)
"For fans [of Smith's oeuvre], there's lots to see and do," he says, after signing a teenager's T-shirt and shaking his hand. "But for non-fans, there are two film festivals; tons of live music at places like the Dublin House and the Rivers Edge Cafe; a theater that shows art-house movies; and the Count Basie Theatre, for acts that aren't quite arena-worthy, like Boz Scaggs or the local production of 'Grease.' They also have this old car show that seems to attract a lot of people, God knows why."
About 10 years ago, Red Bank went through a Dark Period, when many stores were boarded up and visitors were few and frightened (a local buying a "Dogma" DVD at Jack's says the town was a "sewer"). Since then, Mayor Edward J. McKenna has jolted the town out of its slump with a dramatic makeover that's included spit-shined storefronts, a new riverfront park and a $15.7 million work-in-progress performing arts center. It's even shed its old nickname -- "Dead Bank" -- for a much more vital one.
"The curse of Red Bank is that New Jersey Monthly called it the 'hippest town in New Jersey,' " says Smith, as the SUV cruises by buildings with scalloped awnings and recessed lighting. "So, all these New York trends moved in; [the town's visitors guide] even called one store 'Woolworth's Gone Wild.' But to me this town is very Rockwellian. It's got charm; they don't need to chichi it up."
In its slogan's defense, there are some decidedly outre features to Red Bank. It has nearly 70 restaurants (not bad for a population of 2,000), ranging from Ashes Cigar Club (Smith's pick for steaks and smokes) to Carlos O'Connor's (for what Smith calls "kitschy Irish-Mexican"). The Funk & Standard Variety Store -- the aforementioned crazy Woolworth's -- is like a mini-Urban Outfitters, with irreverent T-shirts, retro '80s toys and video games to play while you wait. The Internet Cafe was where Smith discovered the Web, and where he logged on and discovered he had a big "Clerks" fan club online. Besides cake, coffee and Web connections, the cafe features live bands and Christian open mike nights, attracting the "kids just out of high school who don't like to drink," explains Smith, the non-partying father of a little girl who, like her dad, was born in Red Bank.
As for the locals, they look as if they were lifted from a Benetton ad. You've got your Wall Street starch-white types and Cosmo ladies who lunch in blinding jewels. Late night along the river, lanky boys in slackerwear and teenage girls in sky-blue eye shadow and ruffled minis perform their awkward mating fandango. With his owl-eye glasses, arm's length tattoo and black-and-white checkered Vans, Smith blends right in. To be sure, there is no Red Bank type, unless you count everyone.
Nor is there a typical Red Bank tourist.
"Do you know how many people come here from New York? It's so cute. They'll say, 'I came all the way from Staten Island,' " he says. "And I'll say, 'That's great. But see that guy over there? He's from Australia.' "
For those who come to relive Smith's flicks, it's easy to do the Kevin Smith Movie Tour -- which he prefers to call the View Askew Tour, but he's realistic about that. The movie-site seeing, which is heavy on "Chasing Amy," doesn't involve much gas or time: Go to Jack's Music Shoppe, then Mechanic Street ("People stand here and take pictures under the No. 10 [the number of a building in the '87 flick]. It's not the most picturesque scene"), Prown's Department Store (closed, but a sign remains) and the Galleria, which stood in for a train station in "Amy" but actually houses some twee boutiques and the House of Coffee.
There are also a handful of out-of-town locations, the biggest (in stature, not size) being the Quick Stop and RST Video store from "Clerks." The most pleasant is Victory Park in nearby Rumson, from "Chasing Amy."
"Oh my God, I can't believe they built it up. It was perfectly low-key. And they took out my swing set and put in a look-at-me, look-at-me version," Smith says as he stops by the grassy patch, which has long views of the river and the hoity-toity houses across the banks. "It's better for the kids, but have they no respect for movie history?"
On the 10-minute drive back to Red Bank, the car streams by streets named after generations-old Red Bank families (the town dates to 1870). But none is called Smith, and that clearly bothers this Jersey boy.
Paulsboro, the town about 90 miles south of Red Bank where Smith filmed "Jersey Girl," named an access road after him. But what he really wants to see someday is an envelope that reads:
Kevin Smith Way
Red Bank, N.J. 07701
Andrea Sachs will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.