The storefront isn't much to look at.
In fact, it isn’t entirely clear from looking through the big windows facing Dorchester Avenue, in the Field’s Corner neighborhood, what the business is.
The only advertising is an inauspicious plastic sandwich board reading “Repair Service: From $30 and Under 30 Minutes, Walk-in Welcome.”
Inside is a large, room, with electronic equipment stacked in bins along the wall and lying in piles around the floor, and a few guys hunched over cheap plastic tables.
But what they’re doing is as much a fine craft as it is hi-tech.
They’re fixing cell phones.
These guys don’t work for Apple or Samsung, or any manufacturers. That’s the whole point.
“I’m not officially sanctioned by the manufacturer,” explains Quang Le, who, with his friend and business partner Minh Phan, started this scrappy repair shop in 2015.
The shop, says Le, “exists because there’s a need, and they don’t satisfy it.”
By “they,” Le means the big companies, like Samsung and Apple, who actually make and sell the phones.
And the need he’s talking about is ubiquitous: cracked smartphone screens.
Samsung screens can cost hundreds of dollars to replace. iPhone screens can cost an Apple customer around $150. Or, customers can get free repairs – if they pay for expensive insurance or special coverage plans, which often end up costing as much or more as repairs.
And, Le says, the big companies can be ruthless about what “qualifies” for repair.
“Like with Apple the phone has to be perfectly fine, the frame has to be perfectly fine. Sometimes it dropped really hard and it got dented -- Apple won’t fix that,” Le says.
“When they come to my store it’s like 80 bucks … Wouldn’t you rather go to the store down the block? we do it in like five minutes!”
Born in Vietnam, Le came to the United States as a foreign student when he was sixteen. He went to high school in California before moving here to attend Boston University.
He was business major – but dropped out, because he had a business idea: one that gets to the very heart of that ubiquitous cracked screen problem.
Where most of us see broken glass, Quang saw opportunity.
And it’s one that other local phone repair gurus know very well.
Curt Ingram, also known as “iPhone Curt,” explains:
“When you drop your phone and break it, it’s typically the surface glass that breaks – the three-dollar part.
Ingram’s start was as scrappy as Le’s.
“I placed an ad in Craigslist – I wasn’t prepared for people to actually call and need the service, so I was meeting people in parking lots, going over to their homes to fix their phones,” Ingram recalls.
He eventually got a storefront and has a steady business fixing phones and computers. And he sees plenty of cracked iPhone screens.
But even though it’s usually only the surface glass – the cheap part – that’s broken, his team can only do so much – because that inexpensive glass is carefully glued to the expensive components – the ‘digitizer’ and ‘LCD’ underneath the glass.
“It’s a lot of labor to separate that from the digitizer and glue it back on properly, so it works well,” Ingram says. “We don’t do that, because it’s a lot of work.”
In other words, when it comes to this kind of repair, even iPhone Curt can’t really fix it – he has to swap the part out with a new or refurbished one. Apple doesn’t sell its parts.
And so, Ingram says, “The challenge is to get good quality parts.”
That’s where Quang Le and his big idea come in.
Le realized that by teaching himself this one, super-difficult skill: separating the broken glass from working screens -- he could get an edge – and make money.
He and his partner Phan hired some friends. They bought heavy-duty glue-warming tables from China. They built a dust-proof chamber out of metal. And they taught themselves by watching Youtube videos – and by trial and error.
“Like, we broke so many screens – like we broke probably hundreds of them, trying to do it,” Le chuckles.
After a while, they got the hang of it. On an average day the team might refurbish more than a hundred screens.
In a market flooded with unreliable knockoff parts, coming mostly from China, Le – now a permanent legal resident – is supplying high-quality parts refurbished right here in the United States.
It’s a classic story – but why stop there?
As Le is closing up one afternoon, he mentions he’s considering going to law school next. Why? It turns out that’s part of another ambition of his.
Le recalls announcing this ambition to his parents.
“I can remember the day I called my mom,” he says. “I said, I want to be Prime Minister, just like that.
Prime Minister, that is, of Vietnam.
If he can, as he proudly claims, fix an iPhone better than Apple -- why not see if he can’t improve his home country?
Le isn’t naïve about the likelihood of this plan coming to fruition – “It’s kind of a pipe dream,” he admits.
But he’s also not kidding: the ambition is real and he’ll likely pursue it until or unless he sees some reason not to.
Quang Le, after all, isn’t afraid of broken glass – or of shattering expectations.