Quarter shortage creates a two-bit black market in coin-operated Seattle

Paul Roberts, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

Seattle may style itself the capital of the information economy, but the "bits" that matter most to locals like Heidi Thorsen are the quarters she and her customers have had to scrounge for since the pandemic struck.

In the Before Times, Thorsen's Lunar Laundry, a coin-only laundromat in the Ballard neiighborhood, was what's known as "quarter positive": Customers brought in so many of their own coins that Thorsen made twice monthly coin deposits at her bank.

But soon after pandemic restrictions hit last year, Thorsen noticed customers relying more often on her change machine. Then noncustomers — apartment tenants and even some small-business owners — began coming in and surreptitiously draining her change machine.

As Lunar went quarter negative, Thorsen went to her bank to replenish her coin supply. But the bank was so short on change, she could only buy a few $10, 40-quarter rolls, and most often there were none at all. "Where the heck are they going?" says Thorsen, who now spends considerable time moving her shrinking supply of quarters from her washers and dryers back to her change machine. "It's not like they disappeared."

Thorsen speaks for many in the local coin-operated economy, a diverse, somewhat old-school community of businesses and consumers that has been in a state of agitation since COVID-19 interrupted the normal cycle of coins.

"It's something I have to think about all the time," says Queen Anne resident Dan White, whose apartment has a coin-operated laundry. Early in the pandemic, White had to frantically group-text friends to secure enough quarters for a weekend's wash.


Another time, after White scored a precious stack from the change machine in a downtown bar, he was followed out and lectured by an employee. "He was like, 'I'll let it slide this time but you can never do that again,'" White says.

White is more systematic these days, periodically hitting a handful of businesses to get his rolls for the month. But the routine is time-consuming, with a furtiveness that often feels "weirdly like I was doing like a drug deal or something," he says. "People that aren't using quarters for a laundry machine have no idea that this is even happening."

Indeed, the Great Quarter Shortage has exposed another social and economic divide as a subset of consumers and businesses must scramble to replace what COVID has made scarce. The result is a kind of two-bit black market, rife with clever workarounds and conspiracy theories, and no small amount of social friction.

"It's really difficult," says Denise Eam, owner of PT Laundry in Kent, about having to ask noncustomers not to use her change machine. "Sometimes people are really nice and say 'sorry' [but] some of them are so nasty."


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