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Dear Zona,

I heard late Saturday afternoon, about third or fourth hand, that you were dead. I hope it isn't true, but I fear that it may be.

It's only last week that you had to go into hospital because of the fibromyalgia. I heard you were out again, but knew it could easily strike once more.

I owe you so much. You made such a difference to my life that it's hard to describe it.

A year and a bit ago, I was feeling really bad. Unemployment was doing horrible things to my stress levels and I just felt crap all the time. I made a decision to start volunteering again as a way of trying to improve my morale.

I went to the Red Cross shop in Wimborne (picked because it's a very good shop and I often buy stuff there) and did a few sessions working on their books, but their back room was unbelievably small and cramped and the books were stored in containers that were totally inappropriate and made it difficult to reach anything. It wasn't helping my stress levels (I was almost at the shaking/stammering level) and the manager (in retrospect) was wise enough to recognise this and say that it wasn't a good idea for me to continue working there.

So, I upped stakes and walked around Wimborne looking for another shop to volunteer with. I picked Weldmar because they had two copies of 'Angels and Demons' by Dan Brown on the shelf.

Why was this a selling point?

It meant they really, really needed me. Dan Brown books are printed and donated in the millions. Every charity shop has more copies of the Angels and Demons than it can ever sell. To have two copies on the shelf showed that they weren't turning the stock over and that no one had any idea of which books to put out.

So, I offered my services.  Zona welcomed me with open arms. The shop had only been open a month or two, there were hardly any volunteers (It takes quite a while for a new shop to get a regular staff) and she knew nothing about books.

We got on like a house on fire. We shared the same sense of humour, both appreciated the others skills – the other reason I picked the shop was because the window display looked really good. Zona came from retail and was a true professional when it came to display. She could take a load of complete tat, arrange it by colour and form and suddenly make it look exotic and valuable.

 

She gave me a completely free hand when it came to the books – which was exactly what I needed. It allowed me to utilise all the tricks of price and display that I'd leant from working in Oxfam and other charity shops over the years. It wasn't long before we were selling higher value books for £30 or more and the book turnover per week had tripled. Zona was delighted. Her manager was pleased too.

I ended up coming in two full days every week. Zona was fabulous. We made each other laugh, shared our joy in books/fashion (books for me, fashion for her), cheerfully griped about anything that bugged us and it wasn't long before my dose of anti-depressants was falling dramatically.

Sales overall were on the low side – it takes time for a new charity shop to get known, to gain volunteers, and to get local people donating. There's a lot of competition in Wimborne which had 9 or 10 charity shops at that point. We used to look at the sales figures for other Weldmar shops and joke that at least our sales were better than the Dorchester book shop! Another reason why I loved her – getting sales figures out of some managers is like getting blood from a stone. Zona gave me a log-on and let me check the figures directly – which meant I got instant feedback when I tried new tricks on the book display.

By Christmas, we were close friends. She gave me a delightful little angels ornament, powered by a candle. (I loved it, physics and prettiness combined)

 

In the new year, the Wimborne deputy manager decided to leave, and Zona and I were delighted as this meant I could apply for the job – two days paid work would allow me to still do some volunteering on top and would give me a small (and much needed) income. She started putting me through all the basic training that I would need for the job: how to make up a float; bank money; keep sales records at the end of the day; refresh the window display, etc.

I was bitterly disappointed when I didn't get the job. I gather it was a close-run thing, but it went to someone with slightly more retail experience.

I can't even remember now who asked me to take a look at the bookshop. It may have been Zona's manager – I'd included a reference from an Oxfam bookshop manager in my CV and I think this finally woke them up to the amount of experience that I have in this area.

I said I'd look, but insisted on travel expenses. Dorchester isn't that close... So, in February 2013 I got my first look at the bookshop as a volunteer.

It was dreadful.

The shop was a total mess. Books for sale piled up on the floor in the shop. Books piled all the way up the stairs. Boxes and bags of newly donated books cluttering up the shop floor. The stock on the shelves was poorly laid out. A lot of the stock in the best positions was unpopular fiction hardbacks and out of date celebrity biographies. The staff member on the till wasn't interested in change and didn't want me (a lowly volunteer) to tell her what needed doing.

Once back home, I basically wrote my ultimatum. I was willing to take on the bookshop, but I was not willing to do it as a volunteer. I wanted to be a paid member of staff (thanks to Zona, I already had the necessary training). It was going to take a massive amount of work and I'd have to be there several days a week to have any chance of getting it back on track. I also needed the authority to make the necessary changes.

Zona was rooting for me all the way. We both knew that it would mean I could spend less time in Wimborne with her, but she was still delighted that I had a chance to work with the books I loved. And she was totally convinced that I could turn the bookshop round.

I managed to work both shops in parallel for a couple of months, but I needed to spend three days a week in Dorchester and it was just too exhausting to do Wimborne as well. I called in whenever I could to see Zona and to pick out the best books for her top shelf display.

Then she went down with fibromyalgia. I called into the shop and she wasn't there. I was told she was ill, but I had no way of contacting her to find out how bad it was. She wasn't answering her mobile. All I could do was to leave a letter with the shop telling her how much I missed her, asking her to get in touch and giving all my contact details.

It was over a month before I heard from her. She'd been really ill, didn't know if she'd ever be able to work again.

She recovered gradually. I'd call into the shop and she'd either be off sick, or there, but looking exhausted. I helped her set up a gmail account so that we could keep in touch even when she wasn't in the shop.

By November, she was looking a lot better and had applied for a new job in a Fair Trade shop in Blandford – less heavy lifting and more control over what stock you get. But this morning, Monday 22 December, I know for definite that she'll never see that job. Part way through writing this, I realise I'd already accepted that she'd gone. I've just had an early phone call from our area manager who knew I was close to Zona. She confirmed the news. A heart attack.

If it hadn't been for Zona and her willingness to welcome a stressed, depressed woman who demanded total control of a corner of her shop, I would not be the relatively sane woman I am today.

This Saturday, Richard, myself and our team of volunteers broke both  the bookshop record for best sales in a day (over £400) and best sales in a week (over £1600).

It was also the day I heard about Zona.

I've lit a candle under the angels and I'm watching them fly.

I shall remember her every Christmas.

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Judith Proctor

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