/ 21 June 2024

Marcus de Jong: The legacy of a bookshop pioneer and champion of progressive thought

De Jong Pic 2 (1)
Turn the page: Marcus de Jong, owner of De Jong’s bookshop in Braamfontein, has died in The Netherlands. Photo: Corina van der Spoel

Although books are inanimate, they have the most profoundly animating effect. As compendiums of, and meditations on, times, places, people, actions, emotions, motives, desires, joys, sorrows, fears and hopes, books distil human experience.

Great bookshops are universities of the mind, heart, spirit and soul, and something between monuments to, and museums of, the human condition. But they are vanishingly rare.

In that year of revolt against old regimes, 1968, just such a bookshop was born in Ameshoff Street, in Braamfontein, Johannesburg, over the road from the University of the Witwatersrand. De Jong’s bore the surname of its founder Marcus de Jong and, for almost two decades, it was a haven of progressive thought and enlightenment.

Amiable and bespectacled, Marcus disguised his intellect, quick wit and courage from the marauding Security Branch police who would raid every time an issue of The Weekly Mail (the previous iteration of this newspaper) was banned. De Jong would hide away copies, dispose of the cops, and then re-display the paper.

Handling banned books, he was more cautious, handing them to patrons in brown-paper bags. 

No, you couldn’t make this up! 

Marcus died in The Hague, in The Netherlands, on 13 June. He was 89. 

Born on 16 April 1935 in Joure, Friesland, in The Netherlands, Marcus Douwes de Jong was the fourth of eight sons. The family came to South Africa in 1952, his baker father getting work in Brits.

Marcus went on to the University of Potchefstroom, taking a BA with three majors, French, German and Afrikaans-Nederlands, and becoming friends with André Brink, who would become one of South Africa’s best-known authors.

To finance his studies, De Jong worked in the Pro Rege Bookshop, which sold university-prescribed works. The bookshop bug had bitten.

After opening a Nasionale Boekhandel bookshop in what was then called Port Elizabeth, now Gqeberha, De Jong worked at Van Schaik’s bookshop in Pretoria before setting up De Jong’s. 

In the literary historian JC Kannemeyer’s autobiography, there’s a reference to De Jong often speaking “originally and sometimes controversially on literature and politics”. 

But the State of Emergency of 1985, and the declining rand exchange rate that made importing books very costly, convinced De Jong to shut shop and leave for The Netherlands in 1986. There, he and his wife Gré ran a bookshop in Makkum for 12 years before retiring.

They took South Africa with them in sculptures and paintings by, among others, Christo Coetzee, Willem Boshoff, Nel Erasmus, Robert Hodgins, Elza Miles and William Kentridge. 

They left behind a void filled at times by special places such as Corina van der Spoel’s Boekehuis, the Bookdealers stores and Kate Rogan’s Love Books in Melville, Johannesburg.

Marcus leaves his wife Gré van der Spoel-de Jong, four children, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.