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Julia O'Malley: If you've got a broken phone, it helps to know 'a guy'

Julia O'Malley
Matt Walker holds the tackle box with which he started his Cracked Wireless cell phone repair business on Friday January 30, 2014 at his Fifth Avenue Mall store. Walker moved up to a briefcase then a kiosk in the mall and then an actual store as his business grew. 140130
Bob Hallinen
A display case is filled with custom replacement parts for mobile phones in Matt Walker's Cracked Wireless store front on Friday January 30, 2014 at his Fifth Avenue Mall store. Walker started working out of a tackle box then moved up to a briefcase then a kiosk in the mall and then an actual store as his business grew. 140130
Bob Hallinen
Julia O'Malley, ADN columnist, portrait in the ADN studio on Friday January 7, 2011 with a white background. 110107
Bob Hallinen

You know how there are certain things that your mother insists you do, and no matter what your age, you refuse to do them, not because they are a bad idea, but because you don't want to be told what to do by your mother?

Every time I break my iPhone, which has become an annual event, not because I am careless, but because Apple made a device you need to have near you all the time that isn't waterproof and is CONSTRUCTED OUT OF GLASS, (a fact that is no accident, but instead a business model)... OK, I'm getting off track. Anyway, every time I break my iPhone, my mother tells me not to go to the Apple Store. Instead, she says "I know a guy," and starts searching the contacts in her phone. He has a kiosk in the 5th Avenue Mall, she says. He can fix it, she says. And then I ignore her and go to the Apple Store where I wait in line for a "genius" to tell me that my phone is broken. And then I buy another one for the low price, if I am lucky, of $200.

Now, after a series of broken phones, I've been asked several times by people who aren't my mother if I'd heard of "the guy." Two weeks ago, I was at New Sagaya City Market, just walking along with my phone in my hand when for no reason I let go. It tumbled to the ground, clattering directly on its little fragile face right at the feet of a mailman who was squinting in at the Chinese food. He winced and then picked it up. It was still face down.

"Is it going to be cracked?" he said, tensing like we were about to see the results of a coin toss before a football game. He turned it over. Totally fine. We both sighed.

"You know," he said. "If it were broken, I know this guy, in the mall...."

Fine. That was it. I decided to find the phone wunderkind and interview him.

His name is Matt Walker. He no longer works out of a kiosk. Now he has a little storefront on the east side of the mall called "Cracked Wireless." He's a decent sized man, late 30s, bald, with the shadow of a beard and tattooed arms. When I introduced myself on Thursday, he invited me back to his office.

Walker started out as an airplane mechanic, he told me. He became a specialist, working on World War II planes. Those require an ear for the sound of the motor. Most mechanics who know how to work on them have died, he said. It as a nice niche until he got carpal tunnel syndrome. His next business endeavor was Northern 4X4 Xtreme, a shop for tricking out off-road trucks. Some time into his tenure there, somebody asked if he could try to fix their phone. When he did it, something interesting happened. The internal geography of the tiny machine made perfect sense. It was like he was born to take it apart an put it together.

"I fixed it and I was like, that is the easiest thing in the whole world to me," he said.

Soon word got out, and people started coming to his truck shop with their cracked screens and waterlogged batteries. Before he knew it, the phone business eclipsed the truck business. The truck business, actually, was failing altogether.

"I destroyed that business," he said. "But I learned from it."

He started selling cases, buying used phones, tuning them up, tricking them out with fancy colored screens and blingy home buttons and reselling.

"We were making a killing buying 'em up and then putting them on Craigslist," he said.

They sold for an average $350. Profit: $150 apiece.

That was about 2009. He started making house calls with a little toolbox full of miniature parts. He met customers at Starbucks and McDonalds. By 2012, he bought a mall kiosk business from a competitor. In September, he opened a storefront, hiring employees to manage the counter while he did repairs.

He doesn't advertise. He just keeps fixing phones and trusting he'll get referrals. Once in a while he does a freebie. Recently his barista at Mocha Motion dropped her phone and he fixed it. He added a new chassis (that's the metal part) covered with pink crystals and put rhinestones on her home button. Free of charge. She talks to customers all day. Next time she hears about someone dropping her phone, maybe she'll tell them about the guy she knows, the one who can fix phones, he said.

There are other repair guys out there. It's a competitive business. He gets an edge two ways, he said. First, he's OCD about fixing the phones, even if it winds up it's at a loss, because a fixed phone brings more phones. If it has 43 screws coming in, it should have them going out. And no fingerprints in the interior.

Second: people with broken phones are desperate and that feeling is true and real. By respecting that desperation, by treating customers like their phone and what is on it is precious, it brings repeat business.

(When he told me this, my brain flashed to the blank face of the girl at the Apple Store the moment she told me that a sensor in my phone said it had been exposed to water. And for that reason she could not help me. Never mind there is a headphone jack hole in the phone that points at the sky where rain comes from. This is what I thought but didn't say. Then I paid $200 and lost all my pictures.)

"People coming in here? Ninety percent of them don't know their mother's number. Why is that? Because it's in their phones," he said. Phones are loaded with our feelings toward the people we communicate with, Walker said. "This isn't a phone anymore," he said, holding up his Samsung Galaxy. "It's an emotion."

When he's fixed a phone, people have burst into tears, hugged and -- once or twice -- kissed him, he said.

Having Walker work on your iPhone voids the warranty, but his customers don't care. His revival rate is 85 percent with water damage, he said. His price for a new iPhone screen on a 4S is half what they charge at the Apple Store. The most damaged phone he's ever fixed was run over by a Humvee. It belonged to a soldier just back from Afghanistan.

Most commonly, though, it's teenage girls. The ones who wear the expensive jeans with "teeny, tiny pockets" in the back, he said. The story goes the same way every time. The phone starts out in the back pocket then, thunk, in the toilet. Close second are mothers.

"Baby saliva is so corrosive," he said.

He does not believe in putting your phone in bag of rice. And don't put it in flour. Or the microwave. Even if it says so on Pinterest. He's seen all that.

"Best thing to do is bring it to me when it's still dripping," he said.

Do not plug it in. If it goes in saltwater, rinse it with fresh.

Chris Simpson, a restaurant manager, has a cool looking phone with red glass on the front that everybody asks about. It didn't always look that way. Originally it was a regular iPhone. Then he knocked it off a desk.

"The screen was obliterated," he said. "Totally spider-webbed."

Being phoneless was isolating, "like being in the middle of the wilderness with no compass and no survival gear," he said. He brought his phone to the AT&T store in the 5th Avenue Mall. He was looking at paying a lot for a new one. A store employee pulled him aside. There was another option, he said. Down on the first floor of the mall, he told Simpson, there was this guy...

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.

 


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