JOSE, Calif. ó This holiday shopping season, I found
myself in a peculiar situation.
was at the mall. I was ready to shop for presents. But I
couldnít find anyone who would take my money.
when I asked if I could pay with it, many looked at me
as if I was from Mars!
be fair, I wasnít offering to pay in dollars. I wasnít
trying to use my credit card or even Apple Pay. Instead,
I was trying to spend some bitcoin.
I know. The computer-based currency still seems a little
new, even though itís been around for six years. And
it works differently than cash or credit cards. You
typically store coins in a smartphone app or Web
service, not in a physical wallet, for example. And to
make a payment, you typically scan a QR-code, the square
bar codes, rather than handing over bills or swiping a
I was at Westfield Valley Fair mall, in the heart of
Silicon Valley, the most high-tech area in the world,
where not only can you walk a few steps to go from an
Apple store to a Microsoft outlet and buy drones from
multiple vendors, but you can find one of the few
bitcoin ATMs in the Bay Area. Surely some store there
would sell me something for bitcoin.
I couldnít find a one.
the typical reaction was one of confusion. Itís easy
to see why merchants might be perplexed by a currency
that is not printed, produced or backed by governments
and whose value is derived not from the backing of a
nation, central bank or its convertibility into a
precious metal like gold, but from the trust that owners
have in it.
never heard of that," a clerk in a childrenís
clothing store told me.
donít even know what that is," said a clerk in a
donít even take the chip card yet," said a clerk
from a second childrenís clothing outlet.
was stunned. Hadnít they heard about the revolution?
Why hadnít they gotten on board?
I was a late convert. Iíd been hearing about bitcoin
for a while now, but Iíd never been terribly
interested in trying it out. It just seemed too esoteric
and too risky.
I got religion at a conference I attended earlier this
month on the future of money. It was hard not to ó
everywhere I turned, there were evangelists of the
hear them tell it, bitcoin today is at the same stage as
the Internet was 20 years ago ó not only is it about
to go mainstream, but itís on the cusp of transforming
wide swaths of the economy. According to the bitcoin
believers, the crypto-currency is going to change the
way we exchange money, and its underlying technology ó
something called the blockchain, which makes a
permanent, inalterable record of transactions ó is
going to fundamentally alter the way we do everything
from pay taxes to purchase homes.
hearing this enthusiastic talk, downloading a wallet app
to my phone and getting my first collection of cypto-coins
ó a whopping $2 worth ó from a fellow attendee, I
was on the bitcoin bus.
course, $2 wonít buy you much, whether itís in
bitcoin or baht or bucks, which is why I headed to
Valley Fair. I figured I could buy some more at the ATM,
maybe meet up with some other bitcoin zealots, and then
mission was something of a bust. For one thing, the ATM
was hard to find, tucked into an out-of-the-way corner
on a side hallway on the second floor. If you didnít
know it was there ó or didnít use the elevator right
next to it ó youíd probably never notice it.
another, few people paid it much attention. A clerk at
the T-Mobile store across the hall assured me that he
saw people go to the bitcoin ATM every day. But after
hanging out near it for close to an hour over the course
of two days, I didnít see anybody use it. The
smattering of people who approached it mostly seemed to
just be passing the time while waiting for the elevator.
checking out the ATM myself, I understand why itís not
more popular, even among bitcoin aficionados. The
exchange rates were extortionary! I would have had to
pay more than $416 per bitcoin, which at that point was
$50 more than the going rate in the online marketplace.
willing to pay that kind of premium, I considered
purchasing some cybercurrency through an online
marketplace. But to buy bitcoins from the marketplace
app I downloaded, Iíd need to link my bank account to
it, and remove the extra security protection I have in
place when logging into that account. As excited as I
was about bitcoin, that made me a bit queasy.
before I took that step, I wanted to see what my bitcoin
could buy. So I started wandering the mall.
my fellow bitcoin backers start slamming me, I know that
mainstream online merchants like Dell and Overstock.com
take bitcoin. And at vendors like Gyft, you can buy
dollar-denominated gift cards with bitcoin that you can
use at a local retailer.
I couldnít figure out why Iíd want to spend dollars
to buy bitcoin to then buy a gift card valued in dollars
ó and pay exchange fees in the process ó when I
could just use a credit card or, heck, old-school cash.
And I was determined to see how this virtual monetary
revolution was functioning in the real world.
letís just say I had a much easier time finding an
Internet cafe in Paris in 1996 than I did finding a
vendor who accepted bitcoin at Valley Fair mall during
the holidays in 2015. I had a hard time finding anyone
who knew what bitcoin was or had even heard of it.
there was anyone in the mall who was going to accept
bitcoin, it was going to be Mykola Mykhailian, who owns
a T-shirt shop named Custom Teez that operates a kiosk
in the middle of the mall. Mykhailian is 28. Heís an
entrepreneur. And heís a bitcoin backer.
owns some 80 bitcoins, worth about $35,000, which he
keeps mostly as an investment. But heís used the
currency to buy spa treatments in Las Vegas for himself
and his girlfriend. So he knows it has real-world value.
not even Mykhailan, a bitcoin proponent, accepts it. He
said he thought about taking the currency a few months
ago, but decided against it because it was just too
volatile. Just this year, the currencyís valuation has
fluctuated from around $330 per bitcoin down to about
$177 and then back up to more than $460 now.
probably not a good time to accept it," Mykhailian
said. "Iím going to wait it out."
think that means Iím going to have to wait, too.
Bitcoin may end up being as revolutionary as backers
believe. But even in Silicon Valley, the evidence for
that can be hard to find.