Cellphone fixer has found his calling

Louie Toro sits in his 2001 Nissan Sentra, which he has decorated with old phone cases and usually parks outside his downtown business, Wireless World on 10th Street. In recent years, his shop has become the great societal melting pot, as people of diverse ages and incomes come in to have their cracked and/or disabled cellphones repaired or replaced. “I call him Jolly Rancher,” one client said.
Louie Toro sits in his 2001 Nissan Sentra, which he has decorated with old phone cases and usually parks outside his downtown business, Wireless World on 10th Street. In recent years, his shop has become the great societal melting pot, as people of diverse ages and incomes come in to have their cracked and/or disabled cellphones repaired or replaced. “I call him Jolly Rancher,” one client said.

Cellphones? Eeesh! They practically own us. When we misplace them, we panic. When we leave them behind, we’re distraught.

And when we break them, we go see a man named Louie Toro, where we rub elbows with doctors, lawyers, cops, restaurateurs, politicians, business owners, schoolteachers, street toughs, homeless folks and all kinds of others whose little handheld gadgets rule their lives.

“This is where society converges,” Toro said with a laugh during a particularly busy Friday at the end of the month. “I’ll get some guy in here pushing a shopping cart followed by a soccer mom from Land Park.”

You fumble your iPhone and crack the screen? Go see Louie.

The charging port goes out on your Samsung Galaxy? Go see Louie.

And when that phone gets waterlogged and much of your life inside the little gizmo is in danger of going bye-bye, this one-time DJ, juvenile delinquent-turned-college graduate, world traveler, craft beer aficionado, father of two adult daughters and brother to five sisters, is the man many enlist for the job.

Toro, 45, spends much of his day hunkered over a desk littered with tools and screws so small you can barely see the threads. One of his makeshift tools is a hair dryer, which he uses to heat up and ever-so-carefully separate the touchscreens of certain phones from a membrane layer beneath.

Toro doesn’t throw anything away, a habit from his threadbare upbringing. Old phones are disassembled for parts. And old phone cases, with the help of a glue gun, are affixed to his never-ending, head-turning, chuckle-inspiring “art car,” a 2001 Nissan Sentra that advertises his business, runs like a charm and starts all kinds of conversations wherever Toro goes.

Wireless World, an aging, fading, funky little spot on 10th Street on the south edge of downtown, has become something of a melting pot for cellphone desperadoes. Here, when you walk up to the counter and explain your phone problem or show Toro your cracked screen, everyone is equal.

During a recent visit, a scantily clad woman in her early 20s with anxiety issues asked about a phone repair, followed by a man in his 60s who said he was a former craps dealer in Reno. When prompted by Toro, the customer lit into his rapid-fired, well-rehearsed casino banter.

One of the problems with these pricey smartphones is that they tumble out of your hands – a lot. And when they hit the ground just so, the sensitive touchscreens crack. Replacing them isn’t easy. But for those in the know, it has become big business.

In the early days, when people actually used their phones primarily to make phone calls and the screens were not necessarily the focal point of the phone, that kind of damage was less common.

“Until a few years ago, I was the only guy in town doing it,” said Toro, whose hair is cropped close to his head and who is almost always seen wearing T-shirts and jeans.

Long before scores of others began fixing cellphone screens on the fly through Craigslist ads, Toro spotted a need, reverse-engineered the process and, combining his business acumen with street smarts, nailed down countless loyal customers who now won’t go anywhere else. When he is out in public, he is bound to point to someone and say, “I fixed that guy’s phone.”

A cracked screen brought Marcus Roman into Wireless World.

“I was playing basketball at 24 Hour Fitness and went up for a shot and it fell out of my pocket. The other guy stepped on it,” said Marcus, who flips houses for a living. “I really need my phone.”

Toro has his own way of going about his business. For instance, say you have a phone he could easily repair for $50, he will advise against such a fix if its age and value don’t make it worthwhile. Or he’ll sell you, say, a cheaper battery charger to circumvent your faulty charging port; or he might say you need a new phone altogether, even if you don’t buy it from him.

“Sometimes people are suspicious and say, ‘What’s your angle?’ But he doesn’t have an angle,” said his sister Yvette Toro, who works at the shop two days a week, mostly handling bill payments. Toro is a Metro PCS dealer and gets a small cut when people pay their bills at his shop, which opened 20 years ago this month.

“I call him Jolly Rancher,” said Rob Abel, a hair stylist and former break dancer who has known Toro since they were teens. “He has this calm, zen-like, Grand Poobah way about him. Not many people who grew up break-dancing in the streets are now upstanding people with good hearts. It’s nice to see that after all these years, Louie is still a good guy.”

Toro says he looks at business in the long term, hoping to develop an ongoing relationship rather than make a one-and-done repair. With that approach, Toro does well enough to drive a Porsche, enjoy fine dining, visit craft breweries throughout the country and finance lengthy trips to far-off destinations, including India, China, Egypt and, most recently, Colombia. To date, he’s been to 29 countries.

“I have a big personality, but when I travel, I like to get outside of myself, absorb other cultures and hopefully incorporate some aspect of it into my life.”

His outlook on life and business is largely shaped by his impoverished upbringing. During much of his childhood, the family made do on food stamps and, even though his parents were strict, Toro found himself headed in the wrong direction. “I was running the streets,” he said.

But even in his early teens, the precocious Toro had an entrepreneurial spirit. In the early days of rap and at the height of break-dancing, the 15-year-old Toro would organize dance contests and DJ shows that attracted crowds from as far as San Francisco. He installed a phone line and a tricked-out sound system in the family garage to convert it into a studio.

He was also racking up a juvenile criminal record, he says, mostly for small things like property theft. He admits he was on his way to being a statistic and a cliché – the kid from the wrong side of the tracks caught up in shady dealings and doing hard time.

He landed his first real job at Wendy’s in Old Sacramento, married at 19, had a daughter at 19 and realized he needed a plan.

“I just had to take a deep look at what I wanted to do and where I was going,” he said. “I definitely wanted to be successful. I wanted a conventional successful life.”

He wound up going to college and earning a degree in English from California State University, Sacramento.

At the same time, phone pagers were the rage, and Toro jumped into the game in 1994, starting what was then called Cool Case Paging. Part of the business was custom pager labels featuring street art. Two years later, it was clear the business was shifting to cellphones. When Nokia phones with removable face plates were at their height, customers flocked to get his customized plates, complete with tiny diode lights in various colors he would solder onto the phones. Several Sacramento Kings players had their phones done in team colors.

“I did a lot of phones for strippers, too,” Toro said with smile.

But the big advance came with the iPhone release on June 29, 2007. It took a while before enough people had them for the aftermarket repair business to take shape. When the phones started breaking, Toro got cracking.

The typical cracked iPhone screen repair costs $65 and takes about 25 minutes. Try removing and precisely reinstalling about 18 tiny screws yourself, Toro says, and it can go south in a hurry. Asked about his own phone use, Toro shrugs and then exhales.

“It will probably surprise people, but I’m not that into my cellphone. What really makes me happy at the end of the day is when I help somebody out. I like to fix their phone and get them up and running for a fraction of what it would cost for a new phone.”

A moment later, a woman carrying a chihuahua came in looking frantic. Toro was at his desk, running a hair dryer and working with guitar picks.

“What am I doing for you?” Toro asked. The woman held up her phone with a shattered screen.