The line outside the Ramen Underground in San Francisco’s Japantown stretched through the mall, as some 300 entrepreneurs, speculators, anarchists and street-corner cryptocurrency dealers gathered for the first-ever Bitcoin Fair last night.
Event co-host Nathan Lands, a 29-year-old in a lush gray velvet smoking jacket, welcomed the crowd.
“When you spend your bitcoin, you can see your bitcoin, you feel your bitcoin,” Lands said, in a Southern drawl. “With this fair, and with the much larger one we’ll do next month, we’re trying to make bitcoin available to the average consumer.”
As the general public starts learning about bitcoin, a digital currency with tenuous legal standing and wild price fluctuations, new investors want in. And last night, the bitcoin brokers and middlemen, hoping to show that the largely unseen and theoretical currency could be real, put on a fair. Bitcoin, they wanted to show, would not be like other speculative markets (the great Beanie Baby boom and bust; the pog era) — with bitcoin, you could buy food.
“People have been buying houses in San Francisco with bitcoin. You have no idea,” said Lands, co-founder of a site called QuickCoin. “Listen, I’m a capitalist. I like money a lot. And bitcoin means different things to everyone, but you can still derive a lot of value from bitcoin, a lot of value.”
On the restaurant’s glass facade, the organizers had painted a bitcoin logo with an old-timey circus feel. Bouncers gave attendees, many of whom heard about the event through Facebook, large “B” stamps on their wrists. Inside, next to a handwritten “cash only” sign, a dusty cash register, and a $20 bill taped to the wall, was a new notice: “Bitcoin now accepted!” The bitcoin hawkers were active, roving around and shaking hands.
“You want a Cryptotap?” asked Kurt Newcomb, a lanky 24-year-old leaning against the Ramen Underground booth.
He produced a stack of plastic bitcoin debit cards.
“I’ve got Zinc Wallet. Bitcoin wallet for the iPhone,” said Aaron Voisine, who said he was still having trouble getting it into the App Store. “Apple legal is, well … “
Kevin Greene, a 24-year-old software engineer at Google, has been attending a small bitcoin discussion group called Buttonwood every Thursday for more than a year. Dread Pirate Roberts, the recently imprisoned founder of anonymous marketplace Silk Road, would come every week. But Greene has noticed the conversations change from political (anarchists see bitcoin as a way to skirt governments) to profit-oriented.
“When we started talking about bitcoin a lot in 2012, it was like a nerd thing, and now people are like, ‘Hey, where can I get some of that bitcoin,’” said Greene, who grew up in Montana. “And I’m like, ‘Whoa, I haven’t talked to you since high school.’”
Ed Stadum, a 75-year-old former venture capitalist who lives on Telegraph Hill, said bitcoin today felt like the Internet in 1992 and that he was launching his own bitcoin-related startup. He wants to create a better international online money transfer system than Western Union’s. His first target demographic is Mexican migrant laborers who send money back home — a decision made in part because his former intern runs the payment system for a Mexican grocery store chain.
“It might make us all very wealthy. We could become philanthropists,” Stadum said, looking around at the young crowd. “These kids could be my grandchildren, but we’re just as ready.”
Matt Mihaly, the 41-year-old COO of ZipZap, a company that lets people buy bitcoin with cash, said he had made a lot of money off bitcoin so far — “It’s a speculative investment, to say the least, but sometimes those work.”
In the ’90s, he started selling virtual currency in the videogames he built and, after making $5,000 in a week, realized he was on to something.
“Bitcoin, it’s the Wild West, it’s the big blue ocean,” Mihaly said. “It reminds me of being in the early days of online games again.”
Not everyone’s bitcoin investments turned out as expected. Cole Albon, 42, preordered a $5,000 Lamassu bitcoin vending machine with 43 bitcoins in the fall of 2013 (last night those would be worth $33,550; after a dip this morning, $29,240).
But, he shrugged, “It happens.”
He has already found a better source of income — he’s now a street-corner cryptocurrency dealer. He calls it “doing local bitcoin.” And he and his rival compatriots have distinct territories in the neighborhoods of San Francisco.
“My bitcoin trading is Tenderloin, Polk Gulch and Nob Hill. I do all face-to-face trading, meet on street corners, that sort of thing,” said Albon, who was wearing a newsboy cap and a sweater. “Local bitcoin is a lot like drug-dealing, though — you make much more money.”