On a damp Thursday night in July, a half-dozen men gather on the steps of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Gardens, just across from St. Patrick Church on Mission Street. They dress down, mostly wearing the jeans and t-shirts uniform of Bay Area programmers. As the sun sets, they’re trading currency in the fog, selling silver and cash for Bitcoins and other crypto-currencies. Every now and then a new trader wanders by, asking, “Buttonwood?”
Welcome to the quickest, most private way to buy the internet’s most successful digital currency: in-person and face-to-face.
Buttonwood meetups started in New York a few months ago and fanned out to San Francisco and Los Angeles. Buttonwood is an allusion to the May 17, 1792 agreement, struck under a buttonwood tree at 68 Wall Street, that set down the rules for what became the New York Stock Exchange. The Yerba Buena Bitcoiners see themselves as the modern descendants of these 18th century traders. Like them, they conduct their business in the open and face-to-face.
They also think they’re onto something big. They’re Bitcoin’s true believers, and they’re excited to be in on the ground floor. “It’s like a new country formed, and they need everything,” says John Light, the Bitcoin entrepreneur who organized the San Francisco Buttonwood meetup.
He packed up and moved to the Bay Area from the Washington suburb of Springfield, Virginia, in January, hoping to cash in on the Bitcoin excitement. For him, the event is a return to Bitcoin’s roots. “For me it was really about decentralizing the exchange process and giving people an easy way to buy and sell Bitcoins.”.
It’s traditionally been tough to quickly buy Bitcoins with U.S. dollars, and recently it’s become tougher. Regulators at the federal and state level have made it clear that anyone engaged in the business of swapping Bitcoins for cash needs to know who their customers are in order to comply with anti-money laundering laws. That’s led to a pretty healthy off-the-books market for Bitcoin traders. Ground zero for this business is a website called Localbitcoins.com, but buyers and sellers can also hook up over Internet Relay Chat at #bitcoin-otc
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