Bitcoin Cafe in Prague
Despite turbulences and steward interruptions, I am rather good at catching a nap mid-air. Not this time though. On my flight to Prague, I was wide awake and excited. It was my first time in the city and I was looking forward to exploring its Old Town’s rich baroque architecture, Gothic churches, arcing cobblestoned lanes, and looming castles. In restless anticipation, I picked up the flight magazine and flipped through it half-heartedly, looking for something to make time pass. It was here that I chanced upon a piece on Bitcoin Coffee, an unusual cafe in Prague that accepted payment exclusively in bitcoins.
Bitcoins are a kind of digital currency that allows movement of money between persons or entities without using an intermediary, such as a bank. (Here’s a handy video that breaks it down.) There are people who believe it’s the future, and others that are convinced that it will lead to financial anarchy. My knowledge on the subject was limited. I remember reading about how it was the currency of choice for drug purchases on Silk Road, an online black market, but I knew little more. I was intrigued.
I had expected my trip to Prague to be about heritage, and yet I found gravitating towards the neighbourhoods lined with trendy cafes and art galleries. Dělnická is one such neighbourhood, home to Paralelni Polis: a two-story structure painted deep charcoal black, in stark contrast to the beige building that flank it.
Paralelni Polis, or the “Institute of Cryptoanarchy”, is a library and a co-working space where one can hire a workspace from 300 to 3000 CZK/month (850 to 8500 INR/month). It was established by a group of hackers and artists and is intended as a meeting place for people who search ways to use and apply modern technologies. The aim of the Institute is “to make available tools for unlimited dissemination of information on the Internet and encouraging a parallel decentralised economy, crypto currencies and other conditions for the development of a free society in the 21st century.”
The philosophy of Parallel Polis is embodied in its café, Bitcoin Coffee. A couple stood outside, smoking and sipping espressos. Reclining against the walls and chatting softly, they seemed like regulars at the café. Stepping inside, I found the place lightly occupied and minimally furnished. There was a sense of space, an openness. Wall to wall wooden steps flanked one end, the rest of the seating was arbitrarily laid out giving the place a touch of disjointedness.
Something was amiss. There was no one waiting in queue to order coffee, no cash register, just a long wooden table spotted with pastries and bread and cookies, jugs of cucumber-lemon water and a coffee dispenser placed on top in the open. Sensing my disorientation, the girl, who I had found standing outside, came in. She was the barista.
“You want coffee?” she asked with a certainty of someone who had seen this confusion many times before.
“Do you have bitcoins?” she asked.
I didn’t. I didn’t even know how to buy them.
“No problem. I will help you. Do you have a smartphone?”. She walked over, took my phone and searched for a bitcoin wallet app. “So, there are two ways. You can buy online from this app, or from an ATM here”
ATM for bitcoins? Yup.
I preferred the ATM route, simply because I had not seen one before. The girl took me to it. Above us, a blue screen flashed the latest bitcoin exchange rate. “So that you can check how much you are paying in the old currency”.
Old currency, that’s what I carried in my pocket.
“So is it only the coffee that is paid for in bitcoins?” I wondered.
“No, I get my salary also in bitcoins” she said.
The ATM was a non-threatening conventional looking ATM. The girl swiped the touchscreen.
“How much do you wish to buy?” she asked.
I was clueless. “Enough for a cup of coffee”.
I ended up buying 8.99 mBTC (1000 mBTC = 1 bitcoin), tantamount to 100 CZK (~300 INR). The coffee cost me 8.81 mBTC and I was left with 0.18 mBTC in my digital wallet. And just like that I now owned a stake in the parallel world of virtual currency.
“What do I do with the leftover bitcoins?”
“Well, you can top it up and use it at other places in Prague. There are more than 80 places that accept bitcoins”
The popularity of bitcoins is soaring in Czech Republic. Brick-and-mortar businesses have begun to accept bitcoins, including quite a few restaurants and cafes (see box). One reason from the trend is the techno-savviness of the locals, that extends the appeal of this crypto-currency beyond the libertarians and hackers usually associated with it. The lagging economy may also be a driver, pushing the citizens to learn more about bitcoins and how they can utilize it for savings and remittances. I quickly learnt that what I had thought as a gimmicky experiment on the side-lines, was fast gaining momentum in the conventional economy.
I took my coffee, thanked the girl for her help, and sat on a canister of a stool with ‘paracetamol’ printed over it, the tables in front was a stack of recycled honeycombed cardboard.
The place was infused with an entrepreneurial spirit. A 3D printer sat in the middle of the room, extending an open invitation to people to come and examine it. The boy from outside was now sitting in a corner absorbed in his laptop, his ears covered with hulky headphones. A few others had formed a group and an animated discussion was on. The barista girl joined them.
The coffee, frothy and strong, tasted good. The hype around bitcoins had not shifted the staff’s focus from brewing good coffee. As I sipped it and looked around, affairs around looked absolutely normal. I could very well be sitting in any other café in any city. The truth however was that I was sitting in the middle of a silent revolution fermenting in the once neglected neighbourhood of a city considered no longer relevant in economic terms. For how long, I wondered. A culture was shaping around me. Unaware, I had remained on the fringes. Soon, the innovators, artists and hackers that run these experiments will step out and alter the ways of working of the world that we have got so used to. And it will all start with a cup of coffee.
A version of this story appeared in National Geographic Traveller India