I had bitcoins, and I had a quest: to spend them in person
I’d bought things on Overstock before, but really wanted to see the real-world application of, what I believed, was one of the biggest innovations of my lifetime. (I still do believe this, but, SPOILER: my optimism is about to be set back a few years)
I really thought this would be relatively easy in a recent trip to one of the biggest cities in the world, Manhattan, home to the Bitcoin Center. Their website declares it “The Center of the Bitcoin Revolution”. Perfect! I explored the site. But unless you speak Latin and nonsense, you’re not going to get any of the potentially useful information promised by the main nav. At least put up a “coming soon!” (EDIT: They have fixed this since this was published) Undeterred, I arrived just in time for Satoshi Thursday, my friend (crypto-noob) in tow. I was finally going to get to meet other people as passionate about this amazing revolutionary technology as I was!
And it’s at this point that I’d like to say that everyone I met at the event was as nice and as welcoming as could be. I’m not a fan of “networking” events in the traditional sense. Everyone usually comes off as very phony (like I’m Holden Caulfield or something) and just wants to get their ridiculous business card into your hand. Occasionally you meet someone interesting. Every single person I spoke to at this place was cool. Not one whiff of pretension. Not one bit of judgement towards the friend I brought with me, who knew nothing about Bitcoin. All good people, save for the quizzical look I got when I busted out my iPhone (newsflash: you’re going to need us if you want mass-adoption). That out of the way, I’ll continue.
The center is located, quite literally, in the belly of the beast. It is a massive space (by NYC standards) in the heart of the financial district, 100 feet from the New York stock exchange, and tucked between the very institutions the technology disrupts. I love it. I can’t imagine what the rent is, but I love it. It is easy to find, and nicely decorated. You sign in when you enter, and turn a corner into the main hall, where miners are on tables for sale, bitcoin ATMs are proudly lined up, and around 100 people were gathered.
This particular Satoshi Thursday marked the closing of an exhibit of currency-themed artwork by the very talented Jenna Lash. Jenna gave a talk about the pieces, which were gorgeous and a perfect fit in a center which seems to relish irony.
We proceeded to the bar, where a very nice woman was serving complimentary drinks (tips accepted). I told her about my weekend mission and asked if she knew of any bars or restaurants nearby that accepted it (apart from the 50+ Manhattan-based businesses I found on coinmap). She didn’t, but suggested I could tip her in bitcoin. Excellent! My first in-person “transaction”! And I’m so happy about it, this will probably be a hell of a good tip!
I’d prepared for this moment. I take out my iPhone, log into Coinbase, 2FA verify w/ Authy, and I’m in. She turns her laptop around, revealing her QR code. I hit send money, scan QR code, snap the picture….wait…what?
Ok, no biggie. I’ll try again. I was nervous. My shaky hands in combination with the marginal indoor image stabilization of the 5s might have thrown it off. I try again, same thing. We research and she finds this is apparently a common issue with coinbase and that if I exit out of it, take the picture of the QR code separately, and go back in, using an existing photo, I should be fine.
Circle to the rescue! Maybe…Yeah! Circle! With hipsters donning it’s website using bitcoins to hang out on rooftops and go for hikes where they collect bird feathers? Hey, hipster! That’s illegal. (Migratory Bird Act of 1918) I send some BTC from Coinbase to Circle, and oh yeah…have to wait about an hour for the confirmations. (This isn’t a problem in Viacoin by the way, which gets first confirmation in about 24 seconds) No problem, there are people to meet, art to look at, and a drink to be drank.
After an hour of meeting some pretty cool people including Nelson Yu of 796.com, a startup futures exchange, I returned to the bar, Circle funds locked and loaded. Gimme that QR code!
That’s right. NO PLACE to scan a QR code in Circle mobile. The app may be different (was not launched at the time), but this was just getting embarrassing at this point, so in perhaps a more ironic turn than launching a Bitcoin Center in the heart of the too-big-to-fail banking industry, I had to tip her in fiat. Strike #2.
This shook my confidence, as I assumed, if ever there were a place to start with spending bitcoin face-to-face, it would be in the Bitcoin Center. I assumed wrong. Still, coinmap boasted over 50 places on this isle that accept it. So the next day, we would try again.
“If you need ice-cream between your cookies, Melt Bakery specializes in handcrafted ice cream sandwiches. Melt Bakery makes all of their ice cream and cookies from scratch daily and has focused on locally-sourced ingredients with seasonal flavor combinations. Melt accepts bitcoin in exchange for their tasty creations.”
I love ice cream sandwiches and locally sourced ingredients and bitcoin! This is it!
We enter and ask confidently, sure we are in the right place for all our crypto-deliciousness needs,”You accept bitcoin, right?”
If I’d asked them if they accept barter for cans of sardines, I’d have gotten a better response. A man sitting in the back laughed under his breath as the woman at the counter said, “No, that was only for a promotion.” I told her, “Well you should” and walked out, but not before buying a snickerdoodle/cinnamon ice cream sandwich. I had to. They looked amazing. But no link for you Melt! You hear me? No link!
STRIKE #3 BITCOIN. It’s a big city and I can’t spend all weekend going around not spending you.
A piece of my crypto-soul died that weekend. Because it hit me, that if I, a lifelong IT professional, savvy enough to not only know exactly what you mean when you say QR code but to know the guts of how they actually work, can’t get this to work in the very first 3 attempts I make to adopt it in the physical world, how is anybody else supposed to? I’d really talked it up to my friend I was visiting, and who accompanied me to the center and Melt, and he watched me fail…miserably…after I so confidently declared this was the future of money.
A look at the money spent on bitcoin infrastructure between mining operations and businesses and a market cap of over $4.5 billion suggests this should all be a lot easier by now, shouldn’t it? If one or two payments of the monthly rent on a space like the bitcoin center went into making Coinbase read that QR code, I think we’d be a lot farther along. (I know Coinbase is not the tenant of the Bitcoin Center, I’m just saying)
I want this to work. I’ve already got an article saved in draft titled “The Great Manhattan Bitcoin Win”. Because I like decentralized currency and everything it stands for. I like the potential that some altcoins offer (like ClearingHouse’s blockchain notary) I’ll be back in NYC in February, and will try again. Let me know if there are some places I should try that accept it. Tips for anyone who succeeds. In the meantime, I’d like to dedicate this post to that bartender. Tip her well.