Adventures in buying bitcoins: a 'how to' guide, sort of

OK, enough of reporting about Bitcoin! A Monitor writer sets out to actually acquire bitcoins, and spend some, too. Does she succeed?

Andy Clark/Reuters
Signs on window advertise a bitcoin ATM that has been installed in a Waves Coffee House in Vancouver, British Columbia in October. The new ATM will trade currency for online bit coins, a form of digital currency.

After reporting on Bitcoin for several weeks, I'm ready to make it real – to bite the Bitcoin bullet and buy some virtual currency myself. Maybe even spend some.

I head over to see Steve Quezadas, whose cozy copy shop on Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood displays "Bitcoin accepted here" signs. I take a colleague for moral support.

We stroll into the shop and take the plunge. Steve, who proudly announces he is a hacker, accepts the mission of turning us into Bitcoin users. First requirement: "Do you have smart phones?"

Check. OK, Steve says, visibly relieved that we have the minimum physical equipment. Whether we have the brain power to keep up with the explanations is another question.

Next, download a Bitcoin wallet application. We head to the App Store on our iPhones and find Blockchain. Turns out Apple has only one Bitcoin wallet app because the company frowns on apps that compete with its own e-pay products, Steve says.

We download Blockchain on one phone. It goes slowly, very slowly. Steve excuses himself while he helps a customer print headshots – this is Hollywood, after all. Then he returns, hopeful that we have completed the task. We have not. There is some glitch that our hacker leader cannot figure out immediately.

"Could be something I did, maybe something you did. Maybe just a glitch," he mutters as he troubleshoots the issue.

Steve is also a dealer, meaning he can sell us bitcoins. So he has printed out a paper wallet for us, with the $20 worth of Bitcoin he is selling us. On this paper are symbols and numbers. These represent bitcoins. (Well, not really – it is actually all there is to bitcoins.) So I hand him a $20 bill, officially completing my first Bitcoin purchase.

There is a public and a private series of numbers on this paper.

"Keep this paper if you don't spend it now," Steve says. "It could be worth a lot of money someday."

But wait. The purchase has not yet shown up on our Blockchain app. While I am imagining my future windfall, Steve points out that we need to verify our e-mail. His Model Printing shop is, happily, also an Internet cafe, with a dozen or so high-speed stations. He settles us at a station and says, "Log on and verify your e-mail."

There it is, the e-mail from Blockchain, asking us to verify ourselves. We click the link. The Blockchain site opens, and a pop-up pronounces that we have successfully verified our e-mail.

We wave at Steve, who is now baby-sitting a run of résumés for yet another actor. He gestures for us to hold on. We nod.

A few minutes later, he hustles over and takes the iPhone.

"Hmm," he says. (This is not a good response from a tech working on your phone.) "What's wrong now?"

The Blockchain app that has finally downloaded fully is not registering the $20 of Bitcoin Steve sold us. There's only one way to find out if it's there. We have to try spending it. Steve instructs us to scan – use the phone to take a picture of – his QR code.

We scan the code, press in the amount – $3.50 worth of our newly purchased Bitcoin – and hit "enter."

Steve's phone vibrates. He checks his receipts and lo and behold, we have just sent him what, in the seconds that the transaction required, has become $3.58.

Possible moral: Buy your bitcoins now.

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