There’s a yellow and pink flag flying outside 143 William Street, a white cube of a building with a crisp red awning. Racks of clothes are arranged on the sidewalk, calling out to people on their way to the barber shop next door or heading down to Main Street.
The shop, 3 Unique Ladie’s (sic), opened this past April. Owned by Linda Tencza and run by Tencza, Laura Dunkley, and Diane Ceder, the store is part coffee shop, part gift shop, and part living room.
When we walked into the shop on a quiet Saturday morning, Tencza and Dunkley were seated at a table, sipping coffee in front of a shiny black computer. Ceder, they explained, works on different days.
“Have a look around,” they urged us.
The store is crowded; no space is wasted. There are clothes, jewelry, bags, cards, knitted baby booties, candles, plaques, trinkets, and tchotchkes galore. Flamingo lights are draped among the shelves. We searched in vain for a price tag on these lights; alas, they were just there for decoration.
Tencza and Dunkley have known each other for 36 years; Ceder and Tencza have known each other 25.
“[Tencza’s] son was in my Sunday school class,” Dunkley said. “We all went to church together.”
Tencza, who runs a day care when she’s not working at 3 Unique Ladie’s, used to care for Ceder’s two children on the days Ceder worked. Tencza grew up in Durham, Conn., and moved to Middletown when she got married at 18; Dunkley was born in Boston and has lived in Middletown for 36 years.
Dunkley and Tencza, who met through the First Baptist Church in Middletown, worked together at that church many years ago.
“What we used to do at the church was outreach,” Dunkley said. “We used to have the gift shop and a café. We served dinner for $3.50—mashed potatoes, meatloaf, vegetables, rolls, corn muffin, dessert and drink. But if you couldn’t afford it, you got it for free. That was our outreach. People would come and sit and just need to talk—fellowship, you know?”
When the space for 3 Unique Ladie’s opened up this past April, Tencza and Dunkley jumped at the chance to continue their collaboration, this time as business partners.
“We put everything on hold,” Tencza said of their choice to open the shop.
The connections that the two women maintain with Middletown community members have been to crucial to the success of 3 Unique Ladie’s.
“We made a lot of friends, and they follow us!” Tencza said. “They follow us wherever we’ve gone.”
Dunkley adopted a high-pitched falsetto: “‘Oh, you’re here?’” she cried out, mimicking friends who have stopped by and seen the store. “‘Oh, good, we’ll come back!’”
They had a good chuckle over that one.
The inspiration to open a coffee and gift shop was largely due to the women’s mutual love for Middletown and for each other.
“This is our thing,” Tencza said. “We love to shop…Some of our old friends that we grew up with at First Baptist, they found out we were here, and they brought in their crafts to sell. We have everything.”
Dunkley and Tencza make an effort to meet the demands of Middletown residents by recycling and reusing.
“People need stuff, and I don’t like people wasting,” Tencza said. “People will throw things out instead of taking them to Goodwill, Salvation Army, or Red Cross. They just put all this stuff on the street.”
“We don’t turn anything down,” she said. “You know, you never know what somebody’s looking for.”
Moreover, Dunkley’s own creativity is showcased in the shop.
“I design clothing,” she said. “My outfits are out there on the mannequin. I do it for my grandchildren, and now I’m doing it for adults, full-figured women. I let the material talk to me. I don’t use a pad, and I sew by hand. It’s just soothing…I go with the flow.”
At that moment, Dunkley became animated, jumping up and down and pointing at something outside the window.
“There’s Bev!” she screamed. “She’s got a tree! A pink one! She’s got a tree!”
Tencza laughed at the image of their friend lugging a pink tree up William Street. “What’s she going to do with that?” she asked.
“It’s fake, so…” Dunkley leaned back in her seat, still shaking her head.
“We all support each other,” Dunkley said, growing serious again. “That’s one thing about the Middlesex Country Chamber of Commerce. It’s one of the biggest ones and best in the state, actually. You meet people. You make connections, and it’s because we all work together.”
Working together comes naturally to Tencza, Dunkley, and Ceder.
“We have fun doing stuff,” Tencza said. “We’ve worked well together for 36 years, as business partners and friends.”
Dunkley agreed that their friendship is what makes them, as their shop proclaims, “unique.”
“You ain’t never going to meet anybody like us,” Dunkley said. “It’s our friendship [that makes us special]. We support each other.”
That support comes in many forms, from Tencza spoiling Dunkley’s granddaughter with stuffed animals from Goodwill to Dunkley supporting Tencza’s son when he needed it as a teenager.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” Tencza said. “We help each other out. Somebody needs something, we do it. You’re short on food, we do it. I think it’s just the way we were brought up.”
Eventually, Tencza, Dunkley, and Ceder hope to open a bona fide café, but as of now there isn’t room for a big enough kitchen in the back. Still, though, they feel that they are filling a niche left empty in Middletown in recent years.
“There’s no coffee shop in this section of town, and no gift shops at all anymore,” Tencza said.
The ladies agree that more important than the coffee or the gifts, or even the trinkets is the community that 3 Unique Ladie’s provides.
“People just come in to have coffee and talk,” Dunkley said. “That’s the whole thing.”
“It’s for everybody, even if you don’t have a lot of money because a lot of people don’t,” she said. “We do this out of fun, we do this for the community, and we do it out of love.”