Most of the country may think Christmas shopping season starts today, but Dan Klein, 41, knows better. He's the store manager of the Kmart on Connecticut Avenue in Silver Spring, and yesterday found him in "the eye of the hurricane."

That's what he calls Thanksgiving--a day when most retailers were dark and Kmart had the crowds to itself.

The Silver Spring store was open from 7 a.m. until 9 p.m., with Klein on the job from 5:15 a.m. till 3 p.m.

Speed-walking through the store, dodging shopping carts and straightening displays, Klein kept up a constant chatter with his employees, his bright yellow walkie-talkie standing out against his light blue shirt. As he walked, the advertising flyer from the morning's newspaper flapped from a back pants pocket.

"I've got to be moving on a day like today," he said. "It's called 'manage by walking.' "

Kmart has been doing business on Thanksgiving since 1991, betting that people would come out before and after the big meal, whether for fun or to get a leg up on the next holiday.

Stephanie Dickens and Jose Gelabert, an engaged couple who just bought a new house in Odenton, seemed happy to prove the company right. Their shopping cart was piled high with gifts--gilded picture frames and candles--but also with things for the new house, like pillows and a comforter. And necessities like socks.

"We came because we were bored," said Dickens. Gelabert, pointing at the overflowing cart, added: "We're going hog wild."

And so were others. A few people were buying last-minute items for their dinner. But people were also trying on coats, crowding the CD section, pulling toasters from the shelves and plucking the ornaments right off a rotating Christmas display.

Bea Cliber and her daughter Amy, both of Aspen Hill, had intended a quick trip to pick up folding chairs advertised that morning. But now their cart was jampacked with facial sponges (they are professional clowns and use them for makeup), pickles, Christmas decorations and soft drinks to consume while waiting in line. And, oh yes, the chairs.

They were going back to cook for the holiday at hand. "We couldn't drag my husband," said Bea Cliber.

Meanwhile, Klein was practically flying through the store, scanning for problems, things out of place.

"This is the worst day," said Klein, who has been at this Kmart for two years and with the company for 19, when asked if a reporter could trail him around.

On most days, he'd have some backup. "I gave the rest of the managers off today," he said. "It is Thanksgiving."

And so he spent the day locating a mirror for someone one moment and approving a gun purchase the next.

In a back room, Thanksgiving dinner was laid out for the salesclerks. Topic of conversation? How fast the $98 color televisions, one of the day's "superbuys," had sold.

The TVs were the big hit of the day, selling out by 11 a.m. The little Furby Babies, widely touted as a hot toy, were the bust, with big displays being mostly ignored.

Klein looked wistfully at the toys, now moved onto a rolling cart. "We'll take them off the floor."

At about 1:15 p.m., Klein leaned against a display. He looked at the thinning crowd. After years of working Thanksgiving day, he knew the drill. "Now they're going to their relatives' house," he said.

The second wave, the ones who ate earlier in the day, would crowd in after 3 p.m. During this lull, Klein sent his employees to "recover" the store: hanging up the clothes, replenishing the poinsettias, reorganizing the piles of Christmas lights.

Kmart, like other retailers, has felt the impact of a jobless rate that, in October, fell to 4.1 percent. But Klein said the closing of Hechinger stores in the region brought it some new workers. His eyes lit up at the mention of the recent liquidation of local Filene's Basement stores. "Oh, yeah!" he said.

By now Klein wasn't alone. Medure Hatchett, soft-lines manager, had arrived at 1 p.m. and would work until 10 p.m. She wouldn't see her family in Danville, Va., until Christmas. "It's retail," she said, as though that explains everything.

With Hatchett in place, Klein got to go home at 3 p.m. to Frederick, where his wife and two teenagers were cooking dinner.

Before he left, he looked around at the overflowing shopping carts filling the 16 checkout lines. Furbies notwithstanding, "We'll close very strong," he said.

CAPTION: Silver Spring Kmart manager Dan Klein, right, uses a walkie-talkie to keep in touch with his employees while he watches Thanksgiving Day customers check out.