What’s an aging New York editor to do after working on a hundred bestsellers by authors ranging from Mary Higgins Clark and Jackie Collins to Joseph Heller and Susan Cheever—and then getting the boot from Simon & Schuster? Three years ago, when Chuck Adams, who turns 65 this month, had to face that prospect, he went home.

Adams, a native North Carolinian, rejected the verdict of another famous Tarheel, Thomas Wolfe, and left New York City for his home turf—but not to retire, by any means. He joined Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

“It was quite simple. I was fired, and I wasn’t ready to retire,” said Adams.

Indeed, Adams had plenty left to offer. Since coming to Algonquin in 2004, Adams has acquired the company’s biggest book in its 25-year history—Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants—while fulfilling a mandate to broaden the list. This season he worked on Brock Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, which received a starred review in PW, a review in the New Yorker and has 50,000 copies in print after two trips to press; and Roland Merullo’s Breakfast with Buddha, an October Book Sense and Midwest Connections pick, which has 30,000 copies in print.

Although Algonquin publisher Elisabeth Scharlatt thinks “it was probably a bit of a culture shock for him, coming here from Simon & Schuster,” she said everyone has adapted well, “him to us and us to him.”

Adams had spent one week out of every four in North Carolina during the last decade he was with S&S; he grew up in North Carolina and received his undergraduate and law degrees from Duke. It was there that he honed his line-editing skills by editing his classmates’ papers as he typed them.

After a three-decade career in New York editing such heavyweights as Higgins Clark and Heller, at first blush it seems ironic that Adams needed to go to a smaller, non—New York house to find his biggest book. But Adams doesn’t think it’s ironic at all. Although Water for Elephants has 1.4 million copies in print in paperback after 18 printings and has sold 280,000 copies in hardcover, Adams contends that “at S&S, Sara’s book would have had a 7,500-copy first printing.” He said, “The way Algonquin is set up, we don’t have a midlist. Every book is worked to the max.” Adams specifically credited the efforts of both Craig Popelars in marketing and Michael Taeckens in publicity, along with their energetic staffs, for finding an audience not just for Gruen’s books but for all the books on the Algonquin list.

That’s not to imply that Adams or the other five editors who are part of the press’s 15-member staff act alone in buying books. “When anything comes in that an editor wants, we pass it on to every other editor and to Elisabeth and Ina [Stern, associate publisher],” he said. “If any of us has a great passion for a book, Elisabeth gives us enough rope. And hopefully you’re right.”

The manuscript for An Arsonist’s Guide got mixed reviews in-house. “It seemed like a Mason-Dixon kind of thing,” Adams said—a couple of readers in Chapel Hill liked it, while others in the New York office did not. “I read it and thought, I have to publish this book,” said Adams, who has since signed another novel by Clarke. Recently his passion for An Arsonist’s Guide was underscored when John Wells, the executive producer behind Infamous and TV shows ER and The West Wing, optioned movie rights.

Although Adams has edited quite a few celebrity titles in his day—including books by Charlton Heston, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Nixon and Cher—he said he can’t afford to indulge his expensive habit as much at Algonquin. Still, his first Algonquin list did include Tab Hunter’s Tab Hunter Confidential, which sold 50,000 copies. “It got our name out there and made people say, 'Hey, they’re changing,’ ” said Adams, who just signed Orson Welles’s daughter to do a memoir about her father.

Writers who work with Adams agree with Sara Gruen, who said he’s “a kind, gentle soul. It was a lovely experience working with Chuck. He edits lightly, with a knowing hand.” Added Brock Clarke, “Chuck’s got a good eye for the gratuitous.”

Adams genuinely enjoys editing, which he likens to a sculptor working with marble—“I just cut and cut and cut.” But what keeps him working, he said, “is the whole thing about opening a package and falling in love.” In the spring, that will lead him and Algonquin to publish Jack O’Connell’s The Resurrectionist. “One of the problems this book has is that it defies description. But he is enough like writers like Thomas Pynchon or Kafka, if you will, plus Joseph Wambaugh, even. It’s a challenge. It’s not a book you can just put out there. It has to be nurtured”—clearly an Algonquin specialty.

“We were not the high bidder,” Adams said. “But I had written him a love letter and he responded to that”—clearly, a Chuck Adams specialty. Excitement throughout the Workman sales force has upped the announced first printing to 50,000.

Algonquin’s Top Sellers Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen 1.4 million paperback copies in print, 280,000 copies sold in hardcover Gap Creek by Robert Morgan 650,000 copies in hardcover; an Oprah Book Club selection Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv 200,000 copies in paperback The Last Girls by Lee Smith sold 160,000 copies; a Good Morning America Book Club selection 100 Flowers and HowThey Got Their Names 140,000 copies in hardcover My Old Man and the Sea by David Hays and Daniel Hays 130,000 copies in hardcover Educating Esmé by Esmé Raji Codell 125,000 copies in paperback, 60,000 copies in hardcover Love, Loss, and What I Wore by Ilene Beckerman 100,000 copies