Alligators' author: No blues for this Cowgirl

It's not so unusual for a successful writer to leave the bright lights of a big city and move to Charlottesville. Christopher Tilghman, Ann Beattie, Charles Wright, Rita Dove, and the recently arrived Barbara Ehrenreich have all answered this town's siren call.

It's a little less common for the writer, almost as soon as she arrives, to open a bookstore with the unlikely name "The Purple Alligators."

But that's what happened to Jeanette Caines, critically acclaimed author of five children's books and recent winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Virginia Center for the Book, sponsor of the book festival taking place this week.

When Susan Coleman of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, which also sponsors the Festival, called Caines to announce that she had won the award, the response was emotional.

"I started crying and she started crying," recalled Caines recently in her Belmont kitchen.

The award follows several publishing successes. One of Caines' books has been translated into Japanese, another was selected as a Reading Rainbow Book, and a third is currently a featured selection of "Motheread," the national family literacy program.

Her books venture into unusual terrain for a children's author adoption, divorce, even unwanted advances from an overly affectionate uncle.

"She's really been in the forefront of dealing with difficult topics for young families," says Coleman.

Caines is a 25-year veteran of Harper and Row, where she worked in the children's department and was friendly with the house's star writers like Steven Kellogg, Shel Silverstein, and Maurice Sendak. She raised two children in New York and returns frequently to visit her daughter.

It was on the invitation of Roger McBride, grandson and book executor of Laura Ingalls Wilder, that New Yorker Caines paid a visit to Charlottesville in the late 1980s and did the unthinkable: She fell in love with a small southern town.

In short order, Caines was a Charlottesville resident and owner of the "The Purple Alligators" in the purple-tiled storefront on West Main Street.

The shop folded after a year, one of at least three local bookstores that disappeared beneath the Barnes & Noble tsunami. But Caines doesn't bear a grudge against the mega-store. To hear her tell it, she now single-handedly keeps the behemoth afloat.

"I've told them, 'Please do not let me in! Do not let me cross that threshold!'" She sighs and gestures to her back door. "I have sat out on that deck and burned food up while reading."

When she's not reading (or burning food), Caines pursues an incongruous passion. This 65-year-old Harlem native loves country and western music.

"I always wanted to be a cowgirl," she said. "As a kid, I used to chew Tootsie Rolls and spit them like tobacco."

That's why western guitar lessons and a trip to Spain are in Caines' near future. After a devastating year in which she lost a half-dozen family members, including her son-in-law and her second husband, Tinsley Armistead, Caines says she's ready to stop grieving.

Coleman's phone call, she said, was a welcome ray of sunshine.

"It's just coming at the right time of my life," she says.

Just as a Lifetime Achievement Award should do.

Jeanette Caines