Out of circulation, ‘Phx Bux’ coins become novelty items for downtown collectors

"Phx Bux" coins were created as local currency to use at Phoenix businesses. They have since gone out of circulation, but now appeal to collectors who like them for their history and aesthetic. (Photo illustration by Evie Carpenter/DD)

It was a comfortably warm day in downtown Phoenix as Crystal Botella sat on Jobot Coffee Shop’s patio and drank from a can of root beer with a straw stuck in it.

The Arizona native was dressed in a colorful sundress, with earrings made out of “Phx Bux” coins dangling from her ears.

Botella comes to Fifth Street almost every day and observes local artists coming and going. She, too, is an artist. She creates the book thongs, earrings and key chains that are sold at Lawn Gnome Publishing.

Botella’s designs favor metals, and Phx Bux, silver metal coins with an open hand in the middle, are seen in many of her creations.

“They are a part of Phoenix history,” Botella said.

Phx Bux are now a rare commodity in Phoenix since they went out of circulation a few years ago. Botella has roughly 100 left.

The coins were local currency that business partners Joey Grether and John Sagasta launched in summer 2009. The currency was accepted by at least 25 Phoenix businesses.

Participating businesses paid $1 per coin and pledged to accept Phx Bux in addition to traditional forms of payment. Customers could request their change in Phx Bux and take coins to other stores that accepted Phx Bux, where the coins were worth $1. The majority of shops allowed only one coin per purchase.

The four sides of the Phx Bux coins each have something to say, spelling out "In Art We Trust Phx Bux." (Evie Carpenter/DD)

But creating the local currency proved to be time-consuming.

“Paper would have been ideal,” Grether said.

Grether created Phx Bux to challenge Phoenicians to rethink local currency and who is actually controlling their money.

Layal Rabat, who is frequently downtown, enjoyed using the local currency but said that once the coins were in circulation, people started hoarding or creating art with them.

“I think that if someone thought to trade (Phx Bux) for services or necessities, they would have lasted a lot longer,” Rabat said. “They mostly worked like coupons. I used them for coffee but don’t recall buying art with them.”

Chadwick Uptain, a local artist, carved the original Phx Bux design and created the molds with the help of a former business partner. They created 3,500 coins.

Uptain still has the original sterling silver casting used to make the molds. Grether now owns many of the coins, sharing them occasionally, and has the original $2 design.

“The Phx Bux had the potential to be huge,” Uptain said. “I think it failed because the creators, John and Joey, began to realize that in order to maintain and grow such an ambitious project it was going to require a lot of work and money.”

Uptain wanted to create multiple coin denominations to generate revenue for advertising, marketing and networking but realized Grether was uncomfortable with the idea of making a profit or the risk of legal consequences.

“We were using it more like a coupon than currency, but if the feds decided to call it counterfeiting, there could have been trouble,” Uptain added.

Phx Bux have become a novelty item and are being collected by many people who appreciate the coins’ uniqueness and history.

“In coin form (Phx Bux) actually had intrinsic value,” Uptain said. “Plus it just felt cool in your hand.”

Grether joked about finding someone willing to donate a couple thousand dollars to revive Phx Bux.

“I’d be down to do it again,” Grether added.

Contact the reporter at kendra.yost@asu.edu