FARGO, N.D. – Apple Inc. devotees in states largely disregarded under a formerly exclusive deal to distribute the iPhone rushed to stores to snap up the gadget early Thursday as Verizon Wireless entered the fray.

Phil Toso, the manager of a Verizon store in Baxter, Minn., said dozens of people were there when the business opened at 7 a.m. Thursday. The store normally opens at 10.

“Customers … are coming in for the iPhone,” Toso said.

At the West Acres Shopping Mall in Fargo, Madison Bratz, 20, said her Android cell phone had been the “next best thing in Fargo,” but that she happily used up all her available funds to buy an iPhone Thursday when AT&T’s exclusive deal ended.

“I totally spent my whole paycheck, but I don’t care,” the direct support specialist said, smiling. “I have waited so long for this. So long.”

Previously excluded from the iPhone club because of AT&T’s at-best spotty coverage in this part of the country, cell phone users in areas of the Dakotas, Montana, Nebraska and Wyoming can now get the phone through the nation’s largest wireless carrier.

The initial turnout may not have been quite what some distributors had expected, and a Verizon spokeswoman said a combination of online pre-orders and the weather may have affected early sales.

“This was the first day the phone was available in stores but the third day that customers could actually buy them. So when you do that and you add the frigid temperatures, yes, the lines aren’t where we expected them to be,” said spokeswoman Brenda Raney.

“But we’re more interested that the customers who walked out were satisfied, and we’re very happy with that,” Raney said. “Lines are not our goal.”

Manager Robert Swope said he had 24 employees on hand to serve the expected hoards of iPhone buyers at the Verizon store at the West Acres mall. About 25 shoppers were waiting outside when he opened the doors.

“I called an ‘all hands on deck day,’” Swope said. “I figure we’re going to stay pretty busy throughout the weekend.”

Existing Verizon customers were allowed to pre-order their iPhones for delivery before the Thursday deadline, and the company said it experienced record sales on the day it began accepting orders online.

Verizon officials declined to release figures on presales, but the manager of one North Dakota outlet said interest had been steady ahead of Thursday’s rollout.

“The demand is definitely there. A lot of people have been waiting a long time,” said Barry Stall, who runs a south Fargo store.

Nicolle Fleck, who manages a Verizon store in Bismarck, said her staff took about 20 advance orders and that about 30 people were waiting outside when the store opened at 7 a.m.

“We probably went through 60 phones today,” Fleck said of sales at about 2 p.m. She declined to say how many iPhones the store had in stock, but she expected the store to run out over the weekend.

Tracked down at the Fargo store, 62-year-old Mike Benson said Verizon’s iPhone distribution deal was perfect for him — because he needed a new phone.

“I didn’t know how to answer it, but I’ve got that figured out now,” Benson said shortly after buying an iPhone Thursday morning. “The thing is, you’ve got to keep up with this stuff.”