In describing her life today, Anita keeps it simple. “I am a single mom with a 16-year-old boy. I have a dog. I have a house. I own a store.” While Anita’s story is not quite so simple, she fully embraces the circuitous path that has led her to Carlisle and her new career as an independent business owner. Anita was born in Germany in a tiny village close to Frankfurt. The family moved briefly to Düsseldorf before finally settling in Constance, nestled on Lake Constance in southern Germany. After she finished high school, the family moved to Munich. From an early age, Anita dreamed about living abroad and was fascinated by other cultures and languages. Her dream to live abroad magnified when she was 17 and met a young French boy on the beach while vacationing in France. “He didn’t speak any English or German, so I had to learn French. Obviously I had a big motivation to be able to communicate,” she laughed. “I used to watch ‘Dallas’ in French because it was the only program that was interesting to me on French television.” While Anita had not enjoyed learning French in school, she took renewed interest in the language because of that summer crush. Languages lead to opportunities After graduation, Anita weighed her options. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to be flexible. I didn’t want to sit in an office all day. I really wanted to be able to go abroad at some point.” College didn’t seem like the right fit for her, but the glamour of the hotel industry loomed large as a way to see the world. Anita took the less traditional path and found a job in the the hotel business in Munich. “I went into the hotel business thinking I could work anywhere I wanted in the world,” Anita recalled wistfully. “But I guess I had a very naïve idea about what it was like to work in the hotel business.” She persevered despite the challenges and completed her apprenticeship in three years. “I thought to myself, ‘I started this, I have to finish it.’” But three years in the hotel business was enough. Since she was feeling too old to go to college at that point, she decided to renew her passion for languages by enrolling in a language school.
“I enrolled in a 2. 5-year program to become a European secretary,” Anita explained. She may have enrolled in the program to learn languages, but she had no intention of becoming a secretary. “All of the teachers taught in their native languages—English, French, Spanish—so I learned to write, read and communicate in social and business contexts.” After completing the program, Anita lived in Spain for a few months where she took an intensive course to further improve her Spanish. “It was my first trip outside of Germany for an extended period of time,” she recalled. “I realized that it wasn’t a problem for me to work basically anywhere in the world because I now had good command of many languages.”
And she was correct. “Employers were fascinated with my language skills,” she observed. Anita’s first job was as an executive assistant at a French company that had contacts in Germany and the U.S. Unfortunately, she was once again hired to work in a corporate office, and was disappointed to discover that “I rarely needed my language skills once I was hired.”
During this time, Anita went to France for a friend’s birthday celebration where she met her husband. The couple had been in the relationship for about a year when he decided to take a job in Paris. “When my husband moved to Paris, I knew it was now or never,” she said. “I always wanted to live abroad, and I didn’t want to have a long-distance relationship, so I moved with him.”
While Anita did not have a job lined up in Paris, she was confident that she could find one. “I thought it was supposed to be easy since France and Germany were now part of the EU, but I still had to get something similar to a green card to be able to work in France.” It was a lengthy process and she was surprised that it was so difficult to move between countries in the EU. She also had trouble trying to break out of the administrative job pool. “I was always in the corporate world sitting in an office doing work that I never wanted to do.”
Unexpected turns of events
In 2001, Anita left the workforce after giving birth to their first child, a daughter. Around the same time, her husband was offered an opportunity to work in the U.S. at a company close to Boston. She had visited the U.S. before, traveling around the country for about 6 weeks with an open airline ticket. “I had a ticket that I bought for 500 Deutsche Marks that allowed me to fly within the U.S. as much as I wanted. I remember thinking that ‘it was all nice, but I don’t think I’ll ever get to live there. Now, 20 years later, I was on my way.”
The initial plan was to stay in the U.S. for 3 to 5 years, a plan that appealed to Anita. “It was a new adventure, away from Paris, and I had not visited Boston before.” She consulted some members of her local mothers’ group for recommendations on where to live near Boston, and they suggested Lexington and Concord. “When we started looking around, Concord reminded me of Europe with its sidewalks and quaint little stores,” so Anita and her family chose Concord and lived there for 16 years.
Anita’s path took an unexpected and unwelcome turn when her daughter was diagnosed with diabetes, then later with an even more grave illness. For five years, her life revolved around caring for her two children (her son was born in 2004) and managing her daughter’s care. The plan to return to Germany was put on hold since it was just too difficult to consider moving her daughter away from the expert medical care in Boston, so the family remained in Concord. Anita was fortunate to find a wonderful au pair for a time who could take on some of the burden of round-the-clock care so she could take a job outside of the house. That job was a much-needed distraction for her after their daughter passed away in 2011 at age 10.
It was two more years, in 2013, before Anita could finally return to Germany. The original plan was for her husband to follow, but for many reasons, including the strain of their daughter’s illness and the pressure of various work obligations, the couple decided to separate. But her return home was not all that Anita expected it to be. “Many things soon became clear,” she recalled. “Having been away from Germany for 13 years, I had an old picture in my mind of what it was like there. I felt like foreigner in my own country.” Even finding an apartment where she could bring her dog turned out to be cumbersome, so Anita packed up her son and her dog and returned to Concord so her son could be closer to his father and attend his old school.
Revisiting goals, retraining skills
Now back in the U.S., Anita “wanted to find a job that was more ‘me,’ one where I would not have to be in an office all day.” While she had not taken the college route after high school, she thought it might open up new career opportunities, so she enrolled at Lesley University. She took a part-time job to help pay tuition, and eventually graduated summa cum laude with a major in liberal arts and minor in psychology. “I didn’t even want to go to graduation,” she recalled, “but I was glad that I went because it gave me a feeling of accomplishment.” When Anita saw the small pile of yellow sashes reserved for summa cum laude graduates, she realized she had done something truly impressive.
After graduation, Anita faced more years of training and certifications in order to receive her license to practice. She was eager to get back into the workforce and was always intrigued by the real estate profession. “I thought real estate was a field where I could interact with others and help people make big life decisions,” she explained. She got her license and worked in the field for several years, spending much of her time networking and generating leads. She even used her connections to help purchase her own home in Carlisle. It was through her networking activity that Anita discovered Michael’s Shoes.
“In order to network, I would go to my favorite retail stories to make connections,” said Anita. “I went into Michael’s Shoes all the time because it was my favorite shoe store, and all of the German brands made it feel like home. Michael was also kind enough to let me put my real estate business card on the counter.” Last year Michael told her that he was retiring and selling the business. Anita was intrigued by the idea of taking over for him, and realized that some of the classes she took during her real estate training helped give her the confidence to become her own boss. After a number of discussions with Michael and members of the staff, she decided to purchase the store.
Making her mark in the retail world
Looking back, Anita thinks that all of her prior work experience paved the way for her to begin this new business venture. “Every single job I’ve had is helping me now in my current job—customer service, marketing, sales—I was just always at the assistant level, never the head person. I like to be in charge and do my own thing, and now I have the perfect opportunity.”
Anita took over an empty store, and for the first few months began to put her personal touches on the space. She made connections with new vendors, placed orders, built inventory and gave the store a facelift. One corner of the store is dedicated to local artists, and features pottery, jewelry, marbles and paintings available for sale on consignment. Some of Anita’s own paintings hang on display for visitors to enjoy. She also plans to host live music in the store with open mic events and may even take to the stage herself for some of these intimate-style concerts. “The store is not just about shoes—it’s about shoes, art, music and more.”
Pandemic postpones grand opening
After announcing that the store, subtly renamed Michael’s Shoe Boutique, would reopen on March 31, 2020, the pandemic struck and abruptly diverted her plans. While she was forced to remain closed until June, she managed to reopen in time for a shortened summer selling season.
“Nobody was looking for dress shoes last year,” Anita laughed, “but people did ask for sneakers and walking shoes with good support. Fall and winter season sales were under goal because everything still shut down. But shoes don’t go bad, and we are seeing shoppers coming back now. Some have come back saying they haven’t bought shoes in too long, then they buy three pairs!”
The soul behind the soles
Anita discovered her passion for painting in 2016 when she took an art class. “After the class, I posted one of my finished pieces on Facebook. I got so many great comments that it inspired me to keep painting.” She took another art class while in college, where she painted an image of a Rieker boot purchased at Michael’s Shoes. There was no way to know at that time how the colorful shoe painting would become the icon for her new business and mark the beginning of another new trail in her life’s journey.
Michael’s Shoe Boutique is open for business at 262 Great Road in Acton. Stop by to meet Anita, browse the art gallery or stay for some live music, and definitely pick up a new pair of shoes.
Published in the Carlisle Mosquito, July 14, 2021.