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Little Free Library-turned art gallery in Costa Mesa lets visitors take a canvas, leave one

Charlene Ashendorf with a Little Free Library at her Montana Avenue home.
Costa Mesa resident Charlene Ashendorf poses for a photo with a Little Free Library at her Montana Avenue home, where people can take tiny blank canvases, paint them and return them for others to enjoy.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

In Costa Mesa, it won’t take you long to find a Little Free Library — frontyard structures built by bibliophiles where people can browse, take or leave titles — but among the 25 registered in town, one holds a special distinction.

On a quiet cul-de-sac on Montana Avenue is a former wine cabinet-turned-library, where passersby can not only look through books meant for all reading levels but can also select teeny paintings from a top-shelf gallery.

Unlike a typical museum, the works inside the Costa Mesa cabinet are created by locals, according to homeowner Charlene Ashendorf.

Charlene Ashendorf's Little Free Library recently evolved to include a small art gallery.
Charlene Ashendorf’s Little Free Library recently evolved to include a small art gallery of canvases people have taken from the cabinet, painted and returned.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I was reading an article about Little Free Art Galleries, and I thought, ‘I’ll give it a try,’” said Ashendorf, who chairs the city’s Cultural Arts Committee.

She leaves tiny blank canvases inside the cabinet that people can take home, paint and return for others to enjoy. Included among the easels are miniature notepads for authors or poets.

The “Friends of Montana Avenue” Little Free Library has been operating since neighbors surprised the couple in the early 2000s by installing a painted box on a nearby wall and filling it with books, years before the national movement took off.

A door from that box still hangs on the back of the existing structure as an homage to the four neighbors who helped create the first iteration.

The door of the first free book box, installed at the home of the Ashendorfs in Costa Mesa, is affixed to a newer cabinet.
The door of the first free book box, installed at the home of the Ashendorfs in Costa Mesa in the early 2000s, is affixed to the back of the current Little Free Library.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

“I don’t know if it was a toolbox or what it was. But we did it in our backyard as a surprise for Char,” neighbor Helen Miller recalled Monday. “The neighbor kids would pick out their books and just flop on the lawn and read them.”

The library’s offerings expanded in time, necessitating upgrades that changed its form but never its function. Since the addition of art canvases last month, Ashendorf estimates about three dozen paintings have been created.

“Nobody signs them, so I don’t know where they come from,” she said. “[But] nothing is not juried into the show.”

Other hyper-local landmarks near the cabinet have become similarly cherished by those in the Ashendorfs’ immediate vicinity. A metal figure, made of railings and found objects and fashioned into a human form, is decorated each month by a neighbor according to the season.

Charlene Ashendorf reads a note about the Free Little Art Gallery at her home in Costa Mesa.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Underneath the sculpture — named Francine, in honor of its personal stylist — small rocks with uplifting messages have been painted by locals and left for future passersby. The rock garden sprung up during the pandemic, when neighbors on lockdown began taking more walks, and is still a place where easy inspiration might be found.

“I think it’s had more meaning during the pandemic because it’s a place you can come,” Miller said of the area.

Behind the Little Free Library are raised planter boxes that have since become the vegetable version of a lending library. Dennis Ashendorf said several neighbors have pitched in to make improvements to the space over the years.

“One neighbor built a cover for [the library] so it would be protected in heavy rain,” he said. “It’s become kind of a project where everybody gets involved.”

For Charlene Ashendorf, the enterprise is about building community.

“We really do live in a great neighborhood,” she said. “And this is a community space.”

Charlene Ashendorf looks at several books left in her Little Free Library at her home in Costa Mesa.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

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