Troy Wolverton: Bitcoin hard to spend in Silicon Valley mall

This holiday shopping season, I found myself in a peculiar situation.

I was at the mall. I was ready to shop for presents. But I couldn’t find anyone who would take
my money.

Heck, when I asked if I could pay with it, many looked at me as if I was from Mars!

To be fair, I wasn’t offering to pay in dollars. I wasn’t trying to use my credit card or even
Apple Pay. Instead, I was trying to spend some bitcoin.

Now, I know. The computer-based currency still seems a little new, even though it’s been around
for six years. And it works differently from 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

But 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
San Francisco Bay area. Surely some store there would sell me something for bitcoin.

Nope. I couldn’t find a one.

I was stunned. Hadn’t they heard about the revolution? Why hadn’t they gotten on board?

Admittedly, I was a late convert. I’d been hearing about bitcoin for a while now, but I’d never
been terribly interested in trying it out. It just seemed too esoteric and too risky.

But I got religion at a conference on the future of money. It was hard not to — everywhere I
turned, there were evangelists of the computer currency.

After hearing this enthusiastic talk, downloading a wallet app to my phone and getting my first
collection of cypto-coins — a whopping $2 worth — from a fellow attendee, I was on the bitcoin

Of course, $2 won’t buy you much, whether it’s in bitcoin or Thai baht or bucks, which is why I
headed to Valley Fair. I figured I could buy more at the ATM, maybe meet up with other bitcoin
zealots, and then go shopping.

That 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 didn’t know it was there — or
didn’t use the elevator right next to it — you’d probably never notice it.

For 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 in hanging out near it for close
to an hour over two days, I didn’t see anybody use it. The smattering of people who approached it
mostly seemed to just be passing the time while waiting for the elevator.

After checking out the ATM myself, I understand why it’s 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.

Not willing to pay that kind of premium, I considered purchasing cybercurrency through an online
marketplace. But to buy bitcoins from the marketplace app I downloaded, I’d 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.

So before I took that step, I wanted to see what my bitcoin could buy. So I wandered in the

Before my fellow bitcoin backers start slamming me, I know that mainstream online merchants such
as Dell and take bitcoin. And at vendors such as Gyft, you can buy dollar-denominated
gift cards with bitcoin that you can use at a local retailer.

But I couldn’t figure out why I’d want to spend dollars to buy bitcoin to then buy a gift card
valued in dollars — and pay exchange fees in the process — 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.

Well, let’s 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.

Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News. – leading Bitcoin News source since 2012