Crypto Capital of the World

The people of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, have always hated rules. A shipping town first settled in the 17th century, Portsmouth was by 1864 home to 120 bars, 30 brothels, and three police officers. It’s a place where a young exhibition shooter named Annie Oakley spent her summers giving free shooting lessons to women, and it’s a place where Blackbeard, among other pirates and privateers, allegedly left buried treasure.

Today, it’s a place where a Tesla Model X SUV bearing the state’s “Live Free or Die” plates zooms by as I walk to the Seacoast Repertory Theater, the lobby of which houses a Bitcoin ATM.

It only takes hundreds,” says a guy in the lobby who has borne witness to my struggle. He’s a local who spends a good chunk of time at the theater and says my predicament isn’t uncommon. People come from miles away to use the thing, he adds. “Then they only have twenties… then they have to go find hundreds somewhere.”

Portsmouth is a strong contender for the most cryptocurrency-friendly city in the world.

When the machine was first installed, in December 2016, he says, “it was getting so much foot traffic.” That was around when Bitcoin began looking less like something nerdy anarchists traded for drugs and more like a sound place to park your money. In 2017, its price rose from about $900 per coin to $20,000, and with those monstrous gains came a class of investors, speculators, and entrepreneurs buying in, hoping to ride the cryptocurrency rocket to the moon.

When I arrive, I quickly discover that the term “Bitcoin ATM” doesn’t mean it’s a thing you stick a debit card into exchange for Bitcoin. Instead, it’s a cube that eats your cash and spits Bitcoin into a cryptocurrency wallet app on your phone. Which means that to buy cryptocurrency at this Bitcoin ATM, I have to find an actual ATM, withdraw cash, then return to the Bitcoin ATM and give it my money.

That drop-off hasn’t stopped Portsmouth, with a population of just 21,000 people, from becoming an unlikely haven for crypto. According to CoinMap.org, the Portsmouth area is home to 24 businesses that accept cryptocurrency, including restaurants, clothing stores, juice bars, regular bars, restaurants, a yoga studio, a dance studio, a hair salon, a vape shop, and a law office. If a grocery store started accepting cryptocurrency, one resident told me, it would be possible for a person to leave the U.S. dollar behind and exclusively pay for things with a jumble of Bitcoin, Dash, Litecoin, Bitcoin Cash, Monero, and Zcash. While places like New York City, Amsterdam, and the Bay Area have more businesses that accept cryptocurrency on the whole, Portsmouth is a strong contender for the most cryptocurrency-friendly city in the world on a per capita basis.

Zeiler, according to his LinkedIn profile, spent two years as a developer at the cryptocurrency company Ripple and lists himself as having attended the Austrian School of Economics, which despite what the name implies, is not an actual educational institution, but rather a school of economic thought whose anti-government, pro-free-market slant aligns heavily with Bitcoin’s.

Many of Portsmouth’s cryptocurrency-friendly businesses are concentrated in a small radius near downtown, centered around the Free State Bitcoin Shoppe, an anarcho-libertarian gift store that accepts only cryptocurrency. The store is owned by Derrick J. Freeman and Steven Zeiler, a pair of cryptocurrency enthusiasts and developers who have led the charge in encouraging Portsmouth’s small businesses to jump on the bandwagon. In part, this is because they’re co-founders of AnyPay, a Square-like app that allows merchants to accept cryptocurrencies. But I don’t get the sense that they’re in cryptocurrency simply to make a quick buck.