December 12, 1994 12:00 PM

SOMETHING MORE THAN TWO LETTERS separates “cans” and “Cannes.” But Kevin Smith, 24, hardly seems the type to bridge that gulf as he strolls through the Quick Stop minimart in his former home, Leonardo, N.J., passing shelves of Spaghettios and Spam he stocked himself until last January. Except for his baggy overcoat—”a girth-hider,” says the 250-lb. snack fiend—Smith looks right at home on his frequent visits to meet pals and work the register “for old time’s sake.” But these days he is a director who won two Cannes Film Festival prizes for the low-budget comedy hit Clerks, a goofy tale of convenience-store life that Smith shot at the Quick Stop with novice actors. “Get outta here!” cries customer Mildred Thomas, 39, when told who rang up her milk. Smith grins. “It’s like going from making $5 an hour to the company presidency overnight,” he says.

Among the perks of his new fame: Smith got $5 million from Gramercy Pictures to make his next film. Not bad for a guy who dropped out of college and film school—and who funded Clerks”s $27,575 budget with credit-card advances, the sale of his comic book collection and a loan from his parents. Donald Smith, 58, a retired postal worker, and his wife, Grace, 45, are pleased by the success of the youngest of their three kids—they only wish the script had fewer expletives. “If it didn’t have that vocabulary,” says Donald, “I’d really like it.” Still, his son knows why Clerks, despite limited distribution, is nearing $1 million at the box office: “It’s a film for anyone who’s ever had a crappy job.”

Smith was inspired to escape his own career cul-de-sac by director Richard Linklater’s wry 1991 hit about shiftless youths, Slacker. A frustrated comedy writer, Smith realized movies could be a vehicle for his musings. He promptly enrolled in a Vancouver, Canada, film school but left four months later. “We were learning more about moviemaking watching videos,” says Smith’s coproducer and film-school pal, Scott Mosier, 24. Smith admits he still has much to learn, but he knows enough to stay close to the source of his success. The title of his next film? Mall Rats.

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