It looks like most any other ATM.
But the new machine tucked into the back corner of Starz Market across from the University of Akron could be a digital banking revolution in a box.
This specialized ATM offers deposits and withdrawals of Bitcoin, the most widely circulated digital currency. It’s one of only a handful of such machines in Ohio and a little more than 200 nationwide.
“The machine arrived Monday or Tuesday and only a couple of people have come in to use it,” Starz Manager Ali Kahook said Saturday, each of his arms working independently from the other to keep pace with a steady line of people buying lottery tickets, cigars, T-shirts and sodas from the East Exchange Street corner store attached to Thursday’s Lounge.
The Bitcoin ATM — wedged between a 7-Up cooler and a tall stack of orange boxes filled with Triumph paper towels — offers no instructions. And Kahook said he’s no expert. He never heard much about Bitcoin until the machine was on its way and still doesn’t fully understand the concept.
“But they said not to worry. People will find [the machine]. We’re close to the university and people will know what to do,” Kahook said.
Bitcoin offers no bills or coins, no bank employees to track transactions and no government guarantee of its value.
Bitcoin instead is a peer-to-peer electronic cash system, using digital tokens that exist only in a universal digital ledger that is available to all Bitcoin users. The value of each bitcoin is determined on an open market, like stocks that trade, and fluctuates based on supply and demand.
Saturday afternoon, one Bitcoin was worth $453.23 U.S. dollars. In 2014, that value spiked as high as $1,000 before crashing into the $200 range last year and climbing its way back.
Why use it? Bitcoin fans have many reasons, but near the top is cost.
Credit card companies often charge merchants between 0.5 percent to 5 percent, plus 20 to 30 cents for each transaction made. Merchants build that cost into the prices of their goods.
Bitcoin payments are often sent or received for free, or at a cost agreed upon between buyer and seller. Likewise, Bitcoin can be used like Western Union and similar companies, which can charge a 10 to 25 percent fee to move money around the world.
Locally, some brick-and-mortar stores, like Underhill’s Games in Cuyahoga Falls and a handful of storefronts in the Cedar-Lee neighborhood of Cleveland accept Bitcoin.
But it’s growing nationwide, particularly with big online businesses like PayPal, Overstock.com and the gaming platform Steam.
Samuel Eli Caplan, 27, of Lakewood, said he earns most of his money as a Bitcoin miner, a term for someone paid for adding transaction records to Bitcoin’s public ledger of past transactions.
“I use Bitcoin all of the time. I buy electronics from New Egg. I was traveling in Costa Rica last month and used Bitcoin to book my hotel through Expedia,” he said Saturday.
Having a Bitcoin ATM nearby could simplify his life, he said, because the machine could instantly change the digital Bitcoin he earns into real U.S. currency he could use anywhere for anything.
Caplan gives Bitcoin a 50-50 shot at becoming mainstream, in part because it’s not easy to understand.
In 2013, for instance, the FBI shut down what’s come to be known as the www.wired.com/2015/04/silk-road-1/">Silk Road, an online black market that dealt in drugs and other illegal vice, and seized millions of U.S. dollars worth of Bitcoin.
“But Bitcoin is not a smart choice for criminals,” Caplan said. Millions of people have access to its universal ledger of all transactions and anonymity users might have when they buy or trade Bitcoin disappears the moment they turn it into any traditional currency.
Maryland-based Black Frog owns the Bitcoin ATM in Starz Market. It owns three others in gas stations or convenience stores in Pittsburgh, Norfolk, Va., and Rockville, Md., charging nothing up to about 6.5 percent (the high at the Akron location) per transaction.
On Saturday, Kahook’s cousin, Joe Hasan, fed about $50 in old-fashioned green, U.S. bills into the Starz Market machine. The machine sent a code to his smartphone, which he held up to the ATM, and scanned.
In turn, the ATM instantly added Bitcoin value to his account.
“My wife likes to shop online,” he said. “This is what she uses.”
Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or firstname.lastname@example.org.