When Larry Met Sally

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Larry and Sally Bohen caught the wave of an emerging market

After Larry Bohen took an early retirement deal from IBM, he and his wife, Sally, launched Vermont Audiobooks, now known as Audiobooks Online, a Web-market based company they run from their home in Richmond.

L arry and Sally Bohen make quite a team. He’s a self-confessed workaholic; she reminds him to stop and smell the roses. It’s an arrangement that must work, because five minutes with them is all it takes to figure out that they love what they’re doing as much as they love each other.

The Bohens are the owners of Audiobooks Online, a thriving business Larry launched in 1994 in a spare room on the second floor of their home in Richmond. Sally was not involved in the business in those early days, when it was known as Vermont Audiobooks. She was managing the Pappagallo shoe store in the Champlain Mill.

Before launching Audiobooks Online, Larry had worked for IBM for 28 years. A native of Springfield, he studied engineering for a while at the University of Vermont, decided engineering was not his thing and switched to business administration.

He never graduated. Along the way, Larry married — “a local girl,” he says. He took a job with Business Systems of Vermont as inside stock manager, eventually moving into sales. “Then we started having a family, and I recognized that I needed more benefits than I was able to get from Business Systems.”

Larry was hired by IBM. He started on the production line, working his way up over the years to purchasing and eventually became the Burlington site’s first contracts administrator. Unlike many IBM-ers, who joke that the initials really stand for I’ve Been Moved, Larry spent his entire career in Vermont. That was not Sally’s experience.

Melody Zagami, Larry Bohen’s business assistant, works with him in the “back office.” She processes orders, writes, designs and e-mails the company newsletter — an opt-in service, to avoid annoying customers — and handles special projects. She’s pictured with Casey, the Bohens’ dog.

A native of Lima, Ohio, Sally grew up in Toledo and eventually Arlington, Ohio, where her father owned a Ford dealership. She studied to be a teacher at Bowling Green State University, “which was short-lived,” she quips, “because I started my family after my first year of teaching.”

Sally’s husband had joined IBM right out of college. They moved to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., lived in Hyde Park, N.Y., for a while, then moved to Wappinger’s Falls, N.Y., where their children, Lisa and Lori, were born. In 1965, IBM brought them to Vermont.

Larry and Sally met at a couples’ function with their respective spouses. “I never thought any more about him,” says Sally,” until he called me five years later.” By then, they were both divorced. “He had seen my ex out alone, and he was out alone, so he called me for a date,” Sally says, laughing. They married in 1984.

Jump forward to 1992. IBM had offered several buyouts to employees over the years. “They offered a buyout in prob ably mid-’92 that I could have applied for,” says Larry. “I didn’t think anything about it until December of ’92. I saw a notice on one of the plant bulletin boards that said: ‘Notice: The buyout we currently have ends in December of 1992 and will be the last best buyout we ever offer.’”

Larry woke up. With 28 years on the job, he knew he qualified, “They accepted, and I left the company in early 1993.” He left with a year’s pay, giving him time to explore opportunities.

Larry hadn’t been only a dedicated IBM employee those 28 years. He had scratched some itches. In 1972, having wanted to do something on his own, he bought a sheep farm in Westford and was a gentleman farmer on weekends.

Before that, to learn about land and farms as soon as they were on the market, he had become a real estate agent. He liked real estate, and since 1985, he and Sally have invested in condominiums in Winooski and South Burlington. In 1988, they bought the building at Church and Main streets in Burlington that houses Smokejacks Restaurant.

Larry decided to take advantage of the time his buyout afforded him to figure out what he wanted to do. “I had dabbled in the futures markets, thought I might want to be a trader selling pork bellies and silver options; and I’ve made some money at it. Then in June of 1993, I was visiting Howard Schroeder, an elderly friend in Richmond who’s since passed away, and he was listening to audiobooks.”

Larry had thought about starting a mail order company for a long time, but was reluctant because of the need to print and mail catalogs. Having worked at IBM, he was computer literate, and was beginning to learn about the Internet and its potential. After the visit to Schroeder, he says, “I put two and two together — the seed of audiobooks and the Internet, and bingo! I didn’t have to have a catalog.”

An early challenge was getting the business up and running on the Internet. “I didn’t have any great programming experience,” Larry says. He contracted with CyberMalls in Colchester to create a few pages on the Web with a listing of audiobooks and a phone number.

From the first, the Bohens knew they had to create a niche. “One of the earliest challenges was, even though we had an online presence, there were a number of years until mainstream America trusted anybody online” says Larry. To instill trust, he joined the Better Business Bureau Online and put an 800 number and complete mailing address prominently on the opening page.

“One of the things about the audiobook business,” he continues, “is that Amazon has enough money to brand their name in the minds of most consumers in the United States. They do have excellent prices on audiobooks, so that’s a major competitor, and we have to differentiate ourselves, our unique selling proposition.

“It has a couple of aspects to it. One is the recommendation thing: You can get a real person on the phone, and we’ll give you an opinion or we’ll research it.” The other aspect, he says, is that each order is reviewed by a person before it’s filled.

Marie Thomas of Richmond became a customer seeking audiobooks of classics to help her son, Cameron, learn to pronounce the difficult words in them. She and her husband are FEMA representatives and spend a lot of time on the road. Audiobooks are their frequent companions.

“After I became a customer, Larry and I became friends,” says Thomas. “It’s really hard not to, because when you deal with them, it’s like dealing with a friend. You send in something, and they’ll immediately e-mail you back, ask questions about your order.”

That customer contact is key, says Larry. “If we see a customer ordered five audiobooks, but two are on cassette, that raises a red flag. We’ll contact that customer, and the customer says, ‘Oops!’ And no disparaging Amazon, but they’re so automated, if the order had been placed with them, that’s the way it would have been ordered. That’s our niche.”

In 1997, the name was changed to Audiobooks Online, “more for placement,” says Sally, “and it really wasn’t a Vermont product.” The inventory grew to several hundred titles, then several thousand, to the 10,000 and more the company now offers.

Audiobooks Online offers 10,000 cassette, compact disc and MP3 CD audiobook products and about 27,000 digital downloadable audio products. Sally Bohen’s daughter Lori Coseo (seated), the bookkeeper, and Mary Keller-Butler, Sally’s administrative assistant who also handles shipping and receiving, work with Sally in what the Bohens call the “front office.”

Sally left the shoe store in 1998 to help Larry with the company. “I wasn’t paying much attention to Audiobooks,” she says. “I would sit out here and hear his hands going on the keyboard and be kind of annoyed that his typing skills were getting so good. When I left, things were going so well, he needed some help.”

The operation has long since left the upstairs guest room. What the Bohens call “the front office” is a 400-square-foot former garage that serves as a warehouse and shipping and receiving area. This is Sally’s domain. She is the primary interface with customers by e-mail and makes all the buying decisions. Working with her are her daughter Lori Coseo — the bookkeeper — and Mary Keller-Butler, a part-time assistant.

The “back office” is in a former den, where Larry works with Melody Zagami, who fields calls to the 800 number, processes orders, and writes, designs and e-mails the company’s newsletter.

Over the years, Audiobooks Online has grown to compete on a worldwide basis and has built quite a reputation. Last fall, Audible.com, “the premier online retailer of digital downloadable audio content to consumers — like, a $40 million company based in New Jersey,” says Larry, invited Audiobooks to become partners. “Amazon.com is one of their partners, so we were proud to be asked,” he says, adding that “Digital downloadable audiobooks represent the fastest growing portion of the audiobook market.”

Plans are on the table for a building to handle the continued growth. Larry bought plans for a Monitor barn style of horse barn and had them customized by James Farrington, a local architect. When completed, the barn will sit off the long driveway leading to the house. Besides freeing up the use of their home, the Bohens hope that having the separate facility will make it easier for them to one day sell the business.

“Sally and I believe we’ll be in this business another few years at least,” says Larry.

“Oh, my God! I’ll be in my 70s!” Sally shoots back.

“Sally likes to play golf; I’m not a golfer,” Larry deadpans.

“I’d rather travel,” says Sally.

“One of the challenges when we were the only ones operating the business was that we couldn’t go on vacation. We real ized we needed to hire some folks so we could go away even for a weekend,” Larry says, trying to change the track of the conversation.

“The business grew, and we haven’t done that, either!” exclaims Sally, who has the last word. •