CITYWIDE — Black Friday.

It’s a phrase that inspires fear in the casual Christmas shopper and naked desire in the thousands that enjoy the thrill of the hunt for deep discounts that bring luxury items within the grasp of the average Joe.

Diehards set their alarms for the wee hours of Friday morning, throw off the wearying chains of tryptophan and set out, determined to be the winner in what may be the ultimate American contest.

The Christmas tree erected out of shopping carts in front of the Edgemar Center for the Arts acts as a shining metal shrine to the day, a totem that holiday shoppers should pay homage to before going out into the world of “doorbusters” to do their part to fuel the wavering economy.

Wells Fargo Securities predicted a 5.2 percent increase in retail sales over last year in its annual Holiday Sales Preview report, but the National Retail Federation called the 2011 holiday season “average,” with $465.6 billion in estimated sales.

But Main Street, where Edgemar and its tree are located, was shuttered at 6:45 a.m. Friday morning except for a smattering of coffee shops.

So, for that matter, was much of Third Street Promenade, and at the Santa Monica Place mall, only four stores reported early openings, with the first one cracking its doors at 6 a.m.

Not even the bathrooms were open.

“That’s been the number one question of the day,” said Security Officer Yos Stone after being approached by the third person in as many minutes seeking a commode.

Santa Monica stores, it seems, pay lip service to Black Friday, offering less extreme hours of operations than many national chains, but preserving the discounts that bring in holiday shoppers.

This year, big box stores like Target, Walmart and Best Buy began their deals earlier than ever before, with some California stores celebrating an East Coast Black Friday at 9 p.m. PST.

News reports detail people camping for days in advance to get their hands on a limited supply of deeply-discounted electronics and other big-ticket items. Already, stories of bad behavior have surfaced, like a woman who allegedly doused 12 people with pepper spray to get her hands on an Xbox 360.

Contrast that with the Exhale spa’s “Holiday Retail Therapy” event, which offers complimentary spa treatments, music and food for those who need more zen.

Early morning shoppers caught the chill of the air and the vibe.

Mike Castillo and his family drove in from Bakersfield to attempt Black Friday in Santa Monica, mostly for the variety of stores and what he hoped would be better prices.

They had scored at Sears — open and with a line around the block at 4 a.m. — and were regrouping on benches at Santa Monica Place at 5:30 a.m., before any of the other stores had opened.

The family doesn’t make a habit out of going out on Black Friday, but this year was an exception.

“We just wanted to do something different for Thanksgiving,” Castillo said.

Others used Santa Monica as a place to cool down after fast and furious shopping elsewhere in Los Angeles.

Cathy and Kennedy Mitchell, of Culver City, were first-time Black Friday shoppers.

They’d begun their day with the competitive crowds at the Westfield mall in Culver City after sleeping through a 1:30 a.m. alarm, and were strolling through the darkened outdoor walkways of the mall.

“I usually hate Christmas shopping. I don’t like the crowds. This was fun and festive, and this,” Cathy said, gesturing at the empty mall, “is palatable.”

Signs of life popped up at scattered store fronts through the district.

Small queues formed outside of some stores on the promenade, the longest line dominated by young men at the Footlocker. Urban Outfitters, despite a 4 a.m. opening, had a docile group standing in the 50 degree weather waiting for satisfaction. There was one person loitering awkwardly outside the Apple Store.

Only Old Navy reported a rush crowd, which had gathered outside for the midnight opening.

“There was a line to Wilshire,” said Alba Vasquez, a store manager.

The employees were busy resurrecting the store after the early push, which lasted until about 3 a.m., Vasquez said. The crew expected another wave between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m., when shoppers filling the Starbucks a few doors down got their second wind.

Vasquez was all smiles, with unflagging energy despite her almost seven hours of work thus far that day.

“I’ve only seen orange juice in the break room,” she said.

Black Friday is only the first in a wave of holiday shopping opportunities, which has now expanded to include Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

Sunday, at least, remains a day of rest.

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